“Tullydonnell NS issue is a national problem”
"I fear if you take all his SNA support, all the wonderful changes in Shea’s development and personality will fall like dominoes, and that’s just wrong.”
There were emotional scenes at a meeting in the Monasterboice Inn last week, as parents and teachers gathered to discuss the growing problem of access to Special Needs Assistants for children with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The meeting comes off the back of Principal of Scoil Naomh Colmcille in Tullydonnell, Togher, Anne Marie Ford refusing to make the impossible decision to take a Special Needs Assistant (SNA) off one child to give to another because, she says, the Department of Education has refused to allocate more resources to the school.
Parents told of their frustration at securing assistance for their children in education, to afford the best possible opportunities for their children’s future.
Dad to Shea (6), Emmett fought back tears as he told how, following his son’s diagnosis with ASD, his time at the school saw massive improvements in all aspects of his development.
Like many children with ASD diagnosis, Shea’s parents had the option of sending their son to a special education school like St Ita’s, a school with an ASD unit or mainstream with SNA.
"We didn’t know what to do when he was diagnosed first, and when we met with Anne Marie, she was a breath of fresh air, and said we’ll take him at the school with an SNA,” he said with emotion. “It was unbelievable to watch the changes in Shea, how he came out of himself and settled in with his pals in Junior Infants.”
But that was to change when Anne Marie got the news Shea was to lose his SNA. Anne Marie stepped in to act as SNA, whilst still principal.
"That is just wrong and Shea is now sharing an SNA with twins in his class, but that SNA was taken off a girl with medical need, who now has now help – robbing Peter to pay Paul, I suppose you could call it.”
Principal Ms Forde says this is just the start of a long journey and it is an issue that affects students all over the country.
"There were so many harrowing stories, and this is not something that is unique to Tullydonnell, but is happening nationally,” she told the Drogheda Independent. “It is a based around a policy, which is there in words but is not followed up in actions, or implemented appropriately. The understanding of what is happening on the ground is not there.”
Helen Bull also told her own experiences with her children Eli (11) and Molly Mae (8), both of whom are ASD in mainstream school in Tullydonnell.
"Eli was only six when he asked did he have autism and could he see a brain doctor to see if he had,” explained Helen, her voice also cracking as she spoke. “It was two and a half years until we got a diagnosis, and I will never forget the relief in his whole body when he was told.”
She said Anne Marie and all the staff at Tullydonnell NS have bent over backwards to support the whole family.
"They have empowered them by accepting and embracing their differences, while helping them to understand their diagnosis,” she adds. “Words can never express how grateful I am that they have ended up in Anne Marie’s care, but the difference in them when they don’t receive the special care is massive, and my worry is without it, all their hard work will be wasted, and their mental health will suffer as a result.”
With lack of resources as early intervention or primary school level, there would naturally be a knock-on effect at post-primary level for students with ASD.
Principal of St Joseph’s CBS in Drogheda Mr Paul Savage spoke of their experience with their new ASD classes.
"We have 850 boys in our school, and started with six students in our first ASD (Autistic spectrum disorder) class and such is the demand, we have now opened a second class, so the need for an inclusion model is there, but needs to be not in word alone,” he explained. “We aim to get the students to access mainstream as much as possible, but in order to do that, they must have an SNA.”
Ms Forde said she was delighted with the attendance, but it is just the start of the campaign.
"With this meeting, we need to build up momentum, as this is an issue that is going to get worse, in every school in Ireland,” says Ms Forde, who is also a scholar of neuroscience to assist in her students and campaign. “If we’re keeping children in an ASD unit, we’re hindering their social skills and opportunities for the future.”
The full meeting is available to view on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtcduFw7ZGA.