independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Keith Duffy pleads to government: ‘Don’t cut SNAs for children with autism’

Lisa Duffy and Keith Duffy
Lisa Duffy and Keith Duffy

CUTS to special needs assistants (SNA) for children with autism will ruin their chances “to hold down a job, maybe one day fall in love, and have an ordinary life”, Boyzone singer Keith Duffy has warned.

The singer and long-time autism awareness campaigner said the issue of special needs cuts is a truly frightening prospect for parents of children with autism.

Speaking to this month’s issue of ‘Mothers & Babies’, the actor has appealed to Fine Gael/Labour coalition government not to make any more cuts to special needs education.

The dad-of-two, whose 13-year-old daughter Mia was diagnosed with autism 11 years ago, is speaking ahead of this month’s budget where it is feared that Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn will have to cut back on his department’s spending. 

He says that if the people making the decisions “only had a child with autism themselves, they’d realise what they’re doing to someone’s life”.

Duffy says SNAs are “imperative to children with autism”, especially those who don’t get a placement in a purpose-built unit and who don’t have access to one-to-one education for at least one or two hours a day.

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He describes the impact on a child with autism when an SNA is taken out of the classroom.

“You’ve got children who are coping in an ordinary classroom setting; they’re coping because they have an SNA beside them, helping them along the way, reassuring them and giving them confidence. With those SNAs taken out, those children get lost.

“They can’t function, they can’t learn, they can’t be educated.

“They become a nuisance in the classroom because they’re scared of their surroundings. It just doesn’t work.

“For the people who are making these cutbacks, if they only had a child with autism themselves, they’d realise what they’re doing to someone’s life.

“Effectively what we try to do is give quality of life to children with autism, give them an opportunity to survive in our society and be happy, maybe one day to hold down a job, fall in love and have an ordinary life.

“Taking SNAs out of the classroom is ruining that opportunity for all these children, and that’s how serious it is.”

Duffy has become the face and voice for children with autism in Ireland over the last 10 years, working with Irish Autism Action to help parents of children with the condition. An umbrella organisation set up in 2001, Irish Autism Action has over 40 member groups and individual members.

Its services include education support, advocacy, awareness raising, counselling, home-based support, research information and early detection diagnosis.

When Duffy’s daughter was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, he was told there was a two-and-a-half-year waiting list for diagnosis.

“Early intervention with children with autism is essential for their future but how can you have early intervention if you’re on a two-and-a-half-year waiting list for a diagnosis?” he said.

He and his wife Lisa went on to get a diagnosis privately. Mia received five years of intensive applied behaviour analysis (ABA) education, and has recently started second year in mainstream school.

“We worked very, very hard, and Mia worked very hard and every time we raised the bar she reached it. The happy ending to the story now is that she’s in mainstream school for the past five years,” says Duffy.

“Academically, she’s flying. Her results this summer were six As and three Bs, which is six As more than I ever got in any exams. We’re very proud of her.”

With schools around the country facing increased class sizes, the need to retain SNAs has never been so apparent. As Duffy points out, any reduction in the hours of SNAs will have an effect not just on the child with autism but on the entire class.

While the number of SNAs has not been cut for 2013/2014, it is important that any increase in available posts is in line with the increase in the demand for services. Likewise, individual cases on the ground should be examined so that no child goes without the services they need.

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