‘Time to make autism special classes mandatory for schools'

Fed up of the difficulties parents of students with autism face when trying to get their child a place in school, Cork autism advocate Graham Manning has been campaigning for change for the last year. He chats with our reporter Jess Casey
‘Time to make autism special classes mandatory for schools'

Graham Manning at his home in Jacob’s Island, Cork. He is campaigning for compulsory ASD special classes in schools for children who have autism. Picture: Dan Linehan

IF schools can’t refuse to offer a student a place due to their ethnicity or nationality, and with legislation expected shortly to remove religion as a factor in the enrollment process, then why shouldn’t the same apply to students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

That is the view of Graham Manning, a Cork ASD programme coordinator and founder of Homeroom, a resource for the parents of students with ASD. 

Over the last year, Graham has met with councillors, TDs and department officials in a bid to end a practice he believes discriminates towards students with ASD.

As he sees it, the current system allows schools to ignore repeated requests from parents and teachers to set up ASD special classes, despite a clear need.

He believes that ASD special classes are unevenly distributed around Cork, oversubscribed with applications and without guidelines on how they should be set up or run as a result.

"For the academic year 2016 to 2017, just one boy was given a place in a mainstream secondary school special class in the city," Graham told the Evening Echo.

The problem is especially critical at secondary school level, he added, as unlike primary schools, in his experience the vast majority of schools have been unwilling to engage in the process voluntarily.

As the gap between the number of ASD special classes between primary and secondary schools gets wider each year, the number of diagnoses of ASD is also increasing, he said.

Some students in Cork who are lucky enough to get a place in an ASD special class may have to travel over 40km a day to and from school.

For those who do not get a place, they are faced with being misplaced in special schools, educated at home or placed in a mainstream secondary school without the supports they require.

According to Graham, all three options are inappropriate; at best limiting for the student and at worst, severely detrimental.

"Every year we are massively oversubscribed for the number of places that we offer," he said. 

Although always aware of the shortage of spaces for students with ASD in the city and county, Graham saw the full extent of the problems when he took on the voluntary position as ASD programme coordinator in his school.

"I wanted to reform the way we ran our enrollment and it meant greater advertising that our school was there, that we had theses classes, that we offer these places but when you do that, it's going to result in more applicants. 

"The vast amount of students who apply to our school, in my professional opinion, should be in a special class in a mainstream school," Graham said.

He has met a small number of students who he felt had needs met better in a different educational setting, he added.

"But the majority of applications, I’ll say yes absolutely, we’re the right place. 

"And then in November when we send letters out to the parents, for the vast amount of parents who applied to our school, after meeting with them, after going out to their child’s school, after gathering all of the different reports that recommend this child should be in a special class in school, there just isn’t the places. 

"As much as possible I make that clear to the parents beforehand but I have to tell parents to apply to every school with a special class within an hours drive, which is ridiculous. And I’m aware, even as I say it, this is stupid, you shouldn’t have to say this but it’s all due to the lack of places.” 

Every year, Graham gives a list of contact numbers for every mainstream secondary school with ASD classes to every parent he meets.

"Plenty of parents follow this, get out the phone and will call all schools within a five-mile radius. Some may have places, some may not because they may be full and if there’s no-one graduating, there are no places. This coming September, (my school) only has places now because we are increasing in size. If we weren’t increasing, there would be no places this year and there would be no places next year. 

"All these parents jump through all these hoops and at the end of the day, they still don’t have places. How is that the case? The demand is there, the Government is saying that they will provide the support. I’ve yet to have had a year when I haven’t had a parent on the phone in tears, just disappointed, upset or angry. 

"I completely understand the emotion, but this happens every year. Every year, there are students who should be in a special ASD class not getting places. I could name them, I remember plenty of them and it's just wrong."

This leaves parents with limited options, he adds. Either homeschool your child, enrol them in a special school or send them miles away outside of their catchment zone.

Parents also accept mainstream places in schools with good ASD classes in the hopes some of the skillset and expertise will spill out, he added.

"It’s seen as the least worst option." 

And if the situation is bad in Cork, there are other parts of the country even worse off, he warned.

"The biggest issue anyone with autism would have, as a generalisation, by and large, is anxiety," Graham explained.

Something as innocuous as another student being given out to during a school assembly could cause great upset, he explains, meaning that a mainstream classroom setting is far from ideal for many students with ASD.

"None of our students would achieve to the level that they do without the support we provide. It’s down to them of course, they are the ones who are (achieving) it, but we provide what they need as well as we can." 

And if this support is provided during secondary school, there is no reason why students shouldn’t progress on to third level or to gainful employment, he added.

"No disrespect to special schools, they are excellent and they provide a service that is every bit as needed as what we do, but it wouldn’t be an appropriate environment for every student and it would be limiting on them," he said. 

"I see all these students we’ve got coming in, regardless of what their academic attainment is, and every year, every November, a large part of what I am thinking is: what about all the kids who are not getting places? What’s happening to them because they are not achieving to the potential they have. 

"I’m just thinking, many times more students than we take in apply. It’s not 50/50, it’s far more. Every November, I keep thinking back to the kids who are not getting places, who should be." 

All this comes back to the schools being able to refuse to set up ASD special classes even when there is a need. Reasons for refusing relating to costs, teacher allocation or fear of the unknown are just excuses, he added.

"There are only two good reasons I can think of (for refusing to set up an ASD special class).The first being lack of demand, which is exceptionally unlikely, and the second being the existence a proportionally high number of special classes, ASD or otherwise, already." 

Graham proposes a simple solution; give the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) the power to compel schools to set up ASD special classes where there is a need.

This is an authority that the NCSE has requested themselves, he adds.

When Graham met Independent Senator Colette Kelleher last year, she suggested he seek an amendment to the Schools Admission Bill, the bill currently being worked on by Education Minister Richard Bruton to remove the so-called ‘baptism-barrier’, include giving the NCSE this power.

After months of cross-party campaigning and correspondence, earlier this summer when Fianna Fail agreed that they wouldn’t support the Bill unless it included this amendment.

"We’ve been told anecdotally it maybe will come through in September, October," Graham said.

"It’s not going to be in effect this September, it's too late now anyway. Schools should be preparing at least a year in advance in my professional opinion. 

"But very much until this reform is put in place and run properly, because I’ve concerns about that too, but until that happens, this September will be the same as the September last year and the year before."

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