School puts something special into education
Principal Joe McKeown is proud of his three special classes for pupils with autism, but he is prouder again when he walks in and finds one of the classrooms empty.
"It is empty because they are in the mainstream class. Some of them are here only two years and nobody would have expected that they would have been spending as much time in mainstream," he says.
It's a tribute to the enthusiastic and highly skilled staff at the 368-pupil De La Salle primary school in Kilkenny City, and proof that the policy of integrating special classes for children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) into schools works. The past decade has seen a proliferation of ASD classes in Ireland, although still not enough to meet demand.
There are almost 18,000 children with ASD in Irish primary and post-primary schools, including 3,800 in special classes. ASD classes are not the only response to the educational needs of children with autism, but they are increasingly sought by parents.
For some children, a special school will be more appropriate and others, whose needs are less complex, may function well in mainstream with supports.
Currently, there are 1,307 special classes of which 1,048 are designated for students with ASD, more than double what it was a decade ago, and The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) expects to open about 180 more next September.
Most ASD classes are in primary schools and more are needed. With a growing pipeline of pupils who have had the benefit of them now approaching the end of their primary years, there is concern among parents about a lack of follow-through. There is no provision at second level in some areas.
Special classes allow a school to offer a blended approach to the education of pupils with ASD, a developmental disorder that affects how people communicate and interact with others. It can be characterised by repetitive behaviours. Classes have a maximum of six pupils with a dedicated teacher and two special needs assistants (SNAs) providing tailored support for the educational and emotional needs of the individual.
As well as their own classroom where they work with the teacher, pupils attend mainstream class to the greatest extent possible, with the support of an SNA. They get time out, as needed, to relax or work off some extra energy under the supervision of an SNA.
At De La Salle, the wing that the school devotes to its additional resources is littered with visual or textual prompts to help pupils recognise their disposition or need and then guide them to a solution.
A 10-year-old who is feeling irritated can dip into an envelope and pluck out a slip of paper with a suggestion to engage in some calming activity, such as yoga. For a student recognising they are calm, the 'lucky dip' might suggest a return to the mainstream class.
Some schools are reticent about or even refuse to open an ASD class, but in 2015 De La Salle embraced them and now it has three, catering for different age brackets. The success of the initiative is evident.
Students who displayed very challenging behaviour in other schools navigate their day comfortably with the help of their individual schedule, their teachers and SNAs.
According to principal McKeown: "What we are all about, over the time they are here, is helping them to be aware about how to regulate their emotions.
"It is about building up in them an understanding of what it is that is going to cause them distress and knowing how to deal with it. As we get to know the children, we know when it is time to bring them into the wing and when it is time to be in the classroom.
"As they get older, we know we are being successful when they come to us and say, 'I need to go to the quiet room'." McKeown says the best thing about the special class is that the individual pupil decides how much time they spend there.
"It is fantastic to have that flexibility. If a child is only able for 10pc of the time in mainstream that is all we ask them to do," he says.
However, their experience is that the children spend progressively more time in the mainstream classroom. Depending on the child, it can build up from zero or 10pc of the school day to 75pc-90pc and above. "Initially, a junior infant might be 100pc in special class and by end of senior infants, it can often be at 50pc." The integration goes across all activities, including participation in the school play.
McKeown says that routine is very important and a simple, picture-based schedule for young children keeps them on track. "Pictures are really important; as long as routine is there, these boys are quite settled."
As the school prepares for the Blue Nose autism awareness campaign next week, there is joy in how the fifth and sixth class pupils in the special class are empowered to take a lead role.
The group includes two pupils moving to a local second level in September, the first from an ASD class in the school to transfer.
McKeown says they are lucky to have a school nearby with an ASD class to smooth the progression. He is delighted too that friendship is a feature of the boys' memories of De La Salle.