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Saturday 24 August 2019

'Early autism diagnosis is vital in children': author

HELPING HAND: Author and tutor Valerie Sheehan and Daniel O’Connell read her book ‘Tony Goes To School’
HELPING HAND: Author and tutor Valerie Sheehan and Daniel O’Connell read her book ‘Tony Goes To School’

Alan O'Keeffe

Irish children with autism are missing out on crucial early intervention because of delays in getting a diagnosis, a leading tutor has warned.

Author Valerie Sheehan, creator of the hugely successful Tony the Turtle books, said it is unacceptable that children are put on a three-year waiting list for an assessment.

"A vital opportunity for children is being wasted. If there is early intervention, many children can be got on track to join mainstream schools earlier," said Valerie, who also works with children with autism spectrum disorder. "The Government needs to do a lot more to tackle waiting lists for assessment."

The Cork-based author has published nine books featuring the Tony the Turtle character. The children relate easily to the turtle character and the books help parents understand the most effective ways of helping children with autism in everyday activities.

"Children with autism have difficulties with social interactions and communication, and they need support in learning how to play with other children. It can appear the children are in their own world and need encouragement in coming out of their shells," she said.

Children with autism may have delayed speech development. Parents who are worried should seek to have their child assessed.

"If parents have a gut feeling, they can usually be right. The sooner a child is assessed, the better," she said.

If children receive a diagnosis of autism, they are entitled to a home tutor or a place in a special pre-school. A diagnosed three-year-old child is entitled to 20 hours a week home tutoring.

"I have seen the difference between starting to work with a child who is two years old and starting work when a child is six. Those early years are when most of the learning is done," she said.

More than 1,400 schools now have special purpose units with specialist teachers to help children with autism.

"The biggest problem in Ireland is around support. The system has not caught up with the amount of children being diagnosed and parents and children are suffering," said Valerie.

"It can be a really hard time for parents when children are diagnosed. It can be overwhelming and there is a grieving process. It can be battle after battle after battle for tutoring and support. Nothing is made easy for parents. So many are waiting for places in schools."

She said the turtle character in her child-friendly books works well for both children and adults. When the outside world gets too overwhelming for children on the autism spectrum, they can retreat into their 'shells'.

"They can experience sensory overload. Things can get too noisy, too bright, too smelly. The child can go into his shell for a while to regulate things and make it easier," she said.

Advice on autism and access to Tony the Turtle books are available on her website at tonytheturtle.com.

Tara Matthews, deputy executive director of the Irish Society for Autism, said: "Unfortunately, little formal research currently exists into the number of people living with autism in Ireland.

"The Irish Society for Autism refers to the National Council for Special Education 2015 report which estimates that one in 65 children are on the autism spectrum.

"In December 2014, nearly 14,000 students on the spectrum were in the school system. Certainly, the increased understanding of autism has greatly improved diagnosis in recent decades.

"When a child is diagnosed with autism, early intervention and access to services is vital. Autism is a broad spectrum and no two people are identical. Early diagnosis and access to services appropriate to each individual are essential."

Sunday Independent

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