KATHLEEN FUNCHION: ‘Why are autistic children being treated differently in Kilkenny?’
THIS week I had the opportunity to put the question to our Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh on why is there an acute shortage of ASD classes for secondary students in Kilkenny. I also asked what measures his Department is taking to address this.
In black and white terms, the lack of ASD classes and places available for autistic children in Kilkenny is a denial of a child’s right to education, and worryingly, is creating a two-tier system within our education system.
In the Minister’s response he clearly stated that the onus is on a school to apply to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) for resources where needed.
Concerned parents have approached me over recent months over their fear that there will be no secondary school places in Kilkenny for their child when the time for them to enrol arrives.
This concern is not an arbitrary fear, it is based on parents’ experiences approaching secondary schools in our constituency and being told there is little hope for their child’s admission to a school that provides an ASD class or that the waiting list is full.
An even larger number of emails come into my office addressing the issue of lack of supports, ASD classes and places in schools at both primary and secondary level across the state. This is a nationwide issue of critical concern.
Our schools must be resourced adequately to provide equally for all children who attend – with or without additional needs. Every school in our constituency needs to acknowledge that diagnostic rates are increasing among our population and we must deliver for that changing demographic.
The situation will not improve by simply ignoring the facts. Teachers must be supported and listened to. If a teacher states they feel ill equipped to have a child with additional needs in their classroom, then that must be addressed by the school. If a parent feels their child needs additional supports, and that child has been diagnosed to verify that need, that parent must be heard.
We are fortunate to be living in a time in Ireland where these diagnoses are happening more readily and gone are the days of simply ignoring a child who appears to be ‘different’. Every child holds value. Every child deserves the same opportunity to reach their potential. Any progressive school will agree that diversity, when treated respectfully, is an enriching component to any classroom.
While the need for adequate resources is certainly an issue in this debate, we must also call out another issue, the elephant in the room – social stigma towards people with additional needs. While we have come a long way in awareness of additional needs this does not always translate to how individuals with additional needs are treated among our own communities.
Understandably, a mainstream classroom is not always the appropriate setting for a child with very particular needs or extreme physical needs. But this decision must be arrived with the relevant health professionals, educators and most importantly, parents.
This is why Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are crucial to a child’s development and progress within a school.
Several laws have been enacted in Ireland to help support and meet autistic people’s needs. But the fact remains that the Education of Persons with Special Additional Needs Act 2004 (EPSEN) has yet to be fully implemented.
The full implementation of the EPSEN Act would be hugely progressive step towards achieving equality for students with additional needs. This needs to happen.
Secondary level students with additional needs across the state are being denied access to particular subjects on a teacher’s evaluation of his or her readiness for that subject. Parents have told me that this happens regularly and parents are denied input. School Boards of Management need to step up to the plate and request the relevant supports from the Department of Education and the NCSE where needed so that teachers feel supported and confident enough to have a child with additional needs in their classroom. No child should be denied taking a particular subject or a place in their local school setting simply because they have additional needs – needs which often can be met if a school has the appropriate staff with the appropriate skills set. This has been outlined very clearly to me personally by the Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh.
Progressive steps have been taken by government towards trying to create a more inclusive education system. Yet, it is pointless to advocate policies on inclusiveness unless those policies are implemented and monitored in a standardised and consistent way.
We have come a long way from the dark days of the immediate institutionalisation of anyone who is deemed ‘different’ or any woman or child who did not ‘fit’ within the accepted social norms. If we are to learn anything from that dark part of our past it should be that all our citizens should be cherished equally. That right must begin at birth and carried throughout every child’s journey in our education system. If our shared hope is that we grow as a compassionate and tolerant community, then we must practice what we preach and work to ensure that every child has a place in a school in our local community.
This is not an issue for parents to fight This is not an issue for parents to fight alone, it is the responsibility of all of us; as elected representatives for our community, as educators, teachers and principals and clergy. We all have a role to play in creating an inclusive embracive education system in Kilkenny that we can be proud of.
*Kathleen Funchion is Sinn Féin TD for Carlow-Kilkenny