School reforms 'putting autistic children at risk'
HIS education is his "lifeline". But autism sufferer Cormac Slater faces losing his life-changing schooling because of reforms in the sort of education he receives.
His father, Dr Eamonn Slater, a sociology lecturer at NUI Maynooth, said new structures being introduced by the Department of Education were not to the benefit of autistic children.
Cormac (12) is one of 244 children attending Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) centres, which the department plans to convert into special schools, offering a different educational approach.
By yesterday evening, 12 of the 13 centres had agreed to the new status, although parents were divided on the issue.
"People are accepting this out of fear because the department hasn't told us what the alternative would be if we said no," said Dr Slater.
He said the fundamental problem for children with autism was that they "live in a bubble in relation to sensory processing.
"Their five senses are misfiring. Some are fired too much and some get overloaded with information, and through this they try to interpret the world."
ABA is an intensive one-to-one therapeutic intervention, which Dr Slater said helped children with autism to reconnect, "some better than others, but all improve".
He added: "It's not just a philosophy, it's a way of finding ways of allowing these kids to reconnect with their immediate environment, with ourselves, with toilet training, with learning how to read or write."
Cormac has been a pupil at Kilbarrack ABA Abacus school in north Dublin and, according to his dad, "he has made tremendous strides".
"It has given him a lifeline. He is beginning to talk, beginning to enjoy life."
Now, said Dr Slater, "we feel it is being taken away from us. We are fighting for our children."
The campaign for proper educational provision for children with autism has been going on for more than a decade.
The new arrangements were worked out in negotiations between the department and Irish Autism Action, representing all but one of the 13 centres.
The net effect of the change is that instead of an exclusive ABA approach, schools would adhere to departmental policy for a mixed approach, involving a range of interventions.
But Dr Slater said the changes would have the effect of killing ABA, which was being "embraced by the rest of the world while we are going backwards".
A department spokesperson said it was committed to ensuring that all children with autism could have access to an education appropriate to their needs.