Autism diagnoses on rise as special needs education costs soar
A huge increase in the number of pupils in Irish schools with an autism diagnosis is a key factor in the Department of Education's soaring spend on supporting children with special needs.
Almost one-fifth - €1.68bn - of the department's budget is now devoted to special educational needs (SEN), more than the €1.58bn awarded to higher education.
Overall, the cost of catering for pupils with special educational needs has risen to 18.9pc of the department's overall budget, up from 14.5pc in 2011.
While the department imposed cuts in many areas during the years of austerity, the budget for special education grew amid a growing acknowledgment of the State's responsibility.
A new spending review, carried out by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, highlights how surging demand for supports for children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a key driver in the rising expenditure.
Most of the expenditure on special educational needs - €1.49bn - relates to employment of staff, such as resource teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs).
There is no overall figure for the number of pupils with special needs, but there are 47,000 (5.2pc) with access to resource teachers and about 32,500 (3.6pc) have an SNA.
The report attributes spending growth to factors such as the rise in pupil numbers and the increase in those qualifying for SNAs and other supports, "and in particular the number presenting with an autism diagnosis".
Between 2011 and 2016, there was an 83pc increase - from 2,742 to 5,041 - in the number of pupils in mainstream schools with an autism diagnosis who have an SNA. There are also children with ASD in special schools. The review notes how the number of SNAs has risen from 2,988 in 2001 to more than 13,000, accounting for €464m of the Department of Education budget.
The figure of 5,041 for ASD pupils with SNA supports does not represent all pupils with autism in schools. A National Council for Special Education (NCSE) 2015 report stated that there were almost 14,000 students with ASD in the system - but not all need SNA support.
The report also points to the large increase in school transport costs for children with special educational needs, increasing by 42pc since 2011.
As well as increased demand for transport for special needs pupils, the use of private taxis and escorts for growing numbers of pupils is a major factor.
School transport for pupils with special needs will cost about €85m this year, some 47pc of the total budget. Pupils with special needs account for 9pc of all those carried.
There has been an increase in the numbers requiring a taxi, with €25m now spent on private hire, while about 1,500 escorts are employed, at a cost of €26m, up from €15m in 2011.
Education Minister Richard Bruton said: "In the worst years of the crash, investment in special education was not only rightly protected, but it was significantly increased. It is essential we continue to provide for children with special educational needs so they can reach their full potential".