Monday 16 September 2019

Parents of boy with autism cleared of 'neglecting his education' after he repeatedly failed to attend school

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Tom Tuite

The parents of a teenage boy with autism have been cleared of neglecting his education after telling a court he threatened to take his life and repeatedly smashed up their family home when asked to go to school.

In an example of the difficulties faced by their teenage son, the mother alleged at Dublin District Court that a teacher joked it was pity he had not been in Paris at the time of the November 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan concert hall in which 90 people were killed.

A parent could be fined up to €1,000 and jailed for a month if convicted of breaking the Education (Welfare) Act for not complying with an official warnings about a child’s school attendance.

Under the Act the minimum school leaving age was raised to 16 years or the completion of three years of post-primary education.

The mother and father pleaded not guilty and faced trial at Dublin District Court, in a prosecution brought by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

They furnished the court with a diagnosis report stating their son, now in his mid-teens, was on the level one of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which affected his ability for social interaction.

They said after attending Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) with their son for more than a year they got an assessment privately which resulted in the ASD diagnosis.

The mother disagreed with the prosecution that the teen’s school still had a place for the boy in its ASD unit.

She also told the court that when her son went into first year he did not like class and could not stay still. He could not make his way from one class to another and there was general misbehaviour, she said.

She told the court she kept in contact with the teachers and principal and knew them well, as her other children had also attended the same school. The mother said her son started going missing after school every day and his behaviour at home became worrying and he was having “serious meltdowns” while taking instructions.

She said her son was very “literal” and did not understand sarcasm. In second year the teacher from the school’s ASD unit asked her to come to a meeting about the boy’s behaviour and suggested the teen may have had Asperger Syndrome.

The family were referred to CAMHS in January 2016 and attended a number of meetings, the woman said.

She agreed with the judge that there had been some missed appointments but it was not easy to get the boy to go and it was very distressing for him, she told the hearing.

She also said he started getting bullied in school by students.

Once after a family trip to Paris, shortly after the November 2015 Bataclan massacre, a teacher asked the boy on his return where he had been, the mother alleged. She claimed when her son told the teacher he had been in Paris, he replied, “Oh dear, what a pity you were not there at the time of the massacre”.

“Another kid may have thought it funny, but an autistic kid has no sense of humour,” the mother said.

She told the court her son had refused to go to school over the past couple of years and has missed doing a lot of tests. She wept as she revealed he threatened he would take his life if he was forced to go.

She also described to the court how he would “wreck the house” and punch the walls. Gardai and ambulances had to be called on a number of occasions, she said.

In relation to one meeting organised by education and welfare officers, the mother said their son had no faith in the system and would not go. “How, can you force a 14, 15, 16-year-old boy to an appointment,” she said.

She also alleged that she was sent a young trainee social worker.

In cross-examination, the mother did not accept the school’s principal’s evidence that more effort could have been made to get the boy to attend school.

She said her son told her “no one can help me”.

In evidence, the father told Judge John Brennan that most of their time was spent getting help for their son while they tried to hold down their jobs, support their other children and pay a mortgage.

He said both he and his partner wanted all their children to have an education.

He said at one stage they thought another coed school might be suited to the boy and he seemed interested. However, after they bought him a new uniform he refused to there either.

He also described how his son punched walls in the home and pulled doors of wardrobes if an attempt was made to bring him to school. Most of the walls in the house had to be filled in, he told the court.

He had to “physically manhandle” him to get him out in the morning and the situation became stressful, he told the court.

He said after 15 months of dealing with CAMHS they decided to pay privately for a psychology professor’s assessment, at a cost of €2,000.

The psychologist’s report with the ASD diagnosis was furnished to the court.

Judge John Brennan said the legislation stated Tusla had a statutory duty to take these prosecutions in extreme situations where parents were neglectful and not taking their obligations seriously, to the detriment of their child.

He accepted the couple had demanding jobs and other children and the evidence of the boy’s violence and punching walls to such an extent gardai and ambulances were called. He noted the parent’s evidence of the suicide threat which was clearly of great concern to them.

He also noted they paid for a private assessment and said clearly they were not neglectful and he said the defence had been upheld. He found against the prosecution and dismissed the case.

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