Breaking down the barriers of autism
Classrooms in 2015 are more integrated than ever, writes Meadhbh McGrath
Some 149 new classes for children with special needs opened in mainstream schools this month, bringing the total number across the country to more than 1,000.
That is a 17pc increase on last year, and double that of four years ago, reflecting the growing attention paid to the needs of children who require extra support to enable participation in mainstream education.
Three in four - 761 - of theclasses are for pupils with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a term encompassing a group of developmental disorders including autism and Asperger's syndrome, where children have difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviour.
Today, ASD classes have placements for 4,500 children - although not all places are filled - up from 1,900 in 330 ASD classes in mainstream schools in 2011-12.
Most ASD classes are at primary level: of the 761, 195 are in post-primary schools, the same as in 2011/12.
Figures published by Dublin City University in 2013 indicate that 1pc of the population is affected by autism, but ongoing research suggests that the incidence is even higher.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) is responsible for advising on the allocation of resources in schools for children with special needs, whether that is resource teachers, special needs assistants (SNA), special classes in mainstream schools or special schools.
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004 provides that a child with a special educational need should be educated, wherever possible, in an inclusive environment.
Special classes are intended to offer children the specialist support they need in a small group setting, while allowing them to integrate into mainstream classes to the greatest extent possible.
Pupil-teacher ratios are much lower than in mainstream classes. A special class for children with ASD will have one teacher and two SNAs for six pupils, compared with a national average primary class of 24 pupils.
When a child is placed in a special class in a primary school, they will also be assigned to an appropriate mainstream class. The curriculum is based on the mainstream primary curriculum, in order to facilitate easy integration into the mainstream class.
In the beginning, the child will typically spend most of their time in the special class, but schools gradually build up the level of inclusion so that the child can join their mainstream classmates during playtime or for less academic subjects, such as PE.
One school dedicated to fostering an inclusive environment is Bunscoil Rinn an Chabhlaigh in Cobh, Co Cork. The co-ed primary school has 739 pupils in total, with two special classes for ASD, and one for moderate general learning disability.
Principal Donal O Ciarain believes integration is the key to successful learning and socialisation for children with special needs. Two children in last year's senior ASD class were spending up to 80pc of their school day in the mainstream sixth class.
"We encourage the children to go to the mainstream class as much as possible.
"But if they feel at any stage that things are becoming overwhelming they can give a signal to the mainstream class teacher and move back to the special class," he says.
The school has a range of state-of-the-art facilities for children with ASD, including purpose-built classrooms, time-out rooms and a sensory room.
Sensory rooms are darkened spaces designed to provide a healthy, calming environment if a child becomes upset or triggered by too much light or noise. The sensory room features a tent in which the child can be surrounded by complete darkness, a projector that displays images on the wall, sensory games with fibre optic lighting and illuminated bubble tubes.
"It's a space to get away from the world, relax, and after a little time they'll come back into the special class or the mainstream class again," he says.
Peter Mullan, assistant general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), says: "In the past, there was a perception that children in special classes were separate, even though they were in the same building. The modern way allows children to be included in the mainstream while giving them the support they need," he says.
Kevin Whelan, CEO of Irish Autism Action, says the increase in the number of autism-specific classes is a step in the right direction. But more need to be created to ensure children can access suitable education in their community."