Autistic children in Northern Ireland need better support, parents say

As reported by the BBC, a group of parents of autistic children have come together to speak with the DE about better support

Parents of autistic children in Northern Ireland are calling for better support in schools.

Jim McDonald has been suspended from his primary school for 30 days over the last three months and his father, Paul, estimates that he has been suspended for a total of 135 days in his first four years of school.

He is one of a group of parents meeting the DE to highlight this issue.

Paul has said that autistic children in mainstream schools don’t get the support they need without a battle.

“Jim’s very curious about the world, he loves knowing how things work and likes to hear other people’s thoughts on things,” he said.

“The majority of the problem that Jim would present with would be anxiety, so as soon as you give him a direct demand he would experience anxiety and, as a result of the anxiety, he would start refusing.”

While Paul admits Jim sometimes lashes out at teachers, he says it’s due to the anxiety problem.

“He would become quite distressed within the classroom environment and, as a result, he would throw something, say certain things and then it moved on to lashing out,” he said.

Jim needs a classroom assistant full-time, which he has a statement to support.

Paul had said that, if staff were appropriately trained to support pupils with a range of learning difficulties, his son would thrive in his school.

Paul is now one of a network of more than 100 parents as their autistic children have had similar experiences in school.

The Education Authority now spends £270m a year on supporting children with special educational needs – including autism. That amounts to around one-eighth of the entire yearly education budget.

DE’s permanent secretary Derek Baker has previously said that he is worried about the rising cost and the support offered to children with SEN.

Liam Mackle from the Children’s Law Centre in Belfast said that, alongside that, a growing number of parents and families are challenging the levels of support offered versus what is required.

“There are pockets where schools don’t yet understand the complexity of autism – each child with autism is completely different from the next child with autism,” he said.

“It’s about identifying what triggers are, speaking to the experts at the EA in terms of their autism intervention services and putting proper school-based strategies in place to avoid the need for things like suspensions and detentions which aren’t addressing the problem.”

“Special educational needs and provision for children particularly with autism has really in the last five years, in terms of our advice service, really exploded.

“Five years ago we were dealing with just under 400 cases in terms of special educational needs – including autism – and that’s now jumped to 1,600.”

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