Children with autism to be asked about experiences of school in landmark study

The ground-breaking research aims to hear directly from pupils with autism. Stock photo: Getty Images

Katherine Donnelly

Autistic children are to be asked to give their own accounts of their experiences of school, in a landmark study

The ground-breaking research aims to hear directly from pupils with autism about what makes schools inclusive and what changes they would like to see.

Researchers at Dublin City University are putting out a call to schools today to get involved in the study.

The latest estimate is that more than 3pc of the school population has special needs, mainly autism, and there is a drive to make the education system more inclusive, including with the opening of more classes.

Autism is characterised by differences in social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communication, and autistic children and young people may require a range of individualised supports to fully take part in education.

The DCU study is the first of its kind to engage directly with children in primary and second-level schools across Ireland

It is being led by Dr Sinéad McNally, Associate Professor in Psychology at the DCU Institute of Education and Dr Mary Rose Sweeney, Associate Professor in Health Systems/Public Health Research at DCU’s School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health.

Dr McNally said, historically, autistic children had rarely been consulted about educational policy and practices.

“We want to hear from autistic children about their experiences of the school day and the school environment as well as experiences of learning and socialising at school,” she said.

“For example, we have remarkably little research about the play and learning experiences of autistic children in school as shared by children themselves.”

Dr McNally said they wanted “to place autistic children’s experiences of education at the heart of decision making around inclusive policies and practices. We really want to meet with and, most importantly, listen to autistic children and their parents across Ireland.” ​

Dr Mary Rose Sweeney said, anecdotally, they knew that many children had experienced exclusion in their schooling.

“We want to ensure children of all levels of need can come and share what they value in inclusive education and how they would like to experience school,” she said.

Jack Leonard, a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who recently left post-primary education said he would welcome any research that would give teachers a better understanding about how to deal with children on the spectrum.

The project, which is funded by the Irish Research Council and supported by AsIAm, Ireland’s national autism charity, is being launched ahead of World Autism Awareness Day, on April 2. Schools in the Republic will be sent information on the study and how to take part in the coming weeks or may email directly.