Struggling to learn lessons from tales of special needs in schools

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On Tuesday morning I posted on the closed Facebook page of a group which offers sports and activities to children with autism asking parents whose kids had been forced onto reduced school hours to contact me.

By mid-afternoon I had been contacted six times.

The stories I heard were shocking.

I have to admit that for me, as a parent of a teen with autism, my sympathy is as much for the parents as for the children.

The certainty that my son will be in school until 2.15pm and now 3.15pm every day has kept me mostly sane for the last 12 years.

It has allowed me to do the half-day’s work which allows me to use what training and gifts I have and that is vital to my mental health. 

In more recent years, it has supplied us with a small but badly needed income.

I matter. Just think what the prospects of my autistic teen would be without my constant care.

Parents of kids who have challenging behaviour are the heroes who keep the rest of the system humming along nicely, thank you very much. 

They need regular school hours easily as much as their kids do.

The practice of offering reduced hours to children who present with challenging behaviour without parental consent has been condemned by rights advocates including Inclusion Ireland and Barnardos.

The Department of Education stipulates that reduced hours should not be used as a tool to manage behaviour, but does not require schools to report its use as rights groups insist it must. 

Currently the practice is not officially documented anywhere.

My callout for experiences provided scary results.

For some reason, the image that most sticks in my head is that of the mother who was required to stay in the car park of a special school during her son’s two-hour day. 

She was told recently that if he managed one full week of good behaviour he — and she — might go back to three-hour days. The principal has told her openly, in front of her child, that he is not wanted in the school.

The Department of Education has suggested she take a section 29 action against the school but she thinks the process might push her back onto medication for depression.

In a comment echoed by most of the parents, she says the school doesn’t recognise the child’s “triggers”. 

Punishment for bad behaviour has included staying in during yard time, for instance, guaranteed to drive a teen with ASD and ADHD bonkers.

She is a single mother and wants to work part-time but it’s not looking likely.

The nadir for another mother of a teen in a mainstream school was the meeting at which a threat of expulsion was mentioned in front of the child.

“Am I being expelled?” asked the 13-year-old with ASD, ADHD, and mild intellectual disability.

Following this meeting, her child compulsively smashed every dish he saw. They had to hold down his dinner plate.

His school-time built up from 10 minutes to a maximum of three hours and meanwhile his mother had shingles five times. 

The mainstream school couldn’t access supports for him because he wasn’t in the State-run mental health service KAHMS and gave his mother an ultimatum that he must enter the service or leave the school. 

She couldn’t get her son into KAHMS because there was an 18-month waiting list.

The assistance he was meant to have for his summer exams did not materialise and the school asked her to supervise the exams herself at home. 

This meant she couldn’t use the exams as a measurement of his ability for mainstream school and ended up putting him in special education without being sure it was right for him.

You’d have to say the mainstream school got the result it wanted, whatever about the child.

One nine-year-old at a special school ended up on an hour a day on his own with a special needs assistant. 

He couldn’t do swimming and was asked not to come to sports day. 

Then his mother was asked not to bring him to the Christmas Fair, although she was organising it and had donated raffle prizes. His parents, who are both working, suffered severe stress and their child became depressed so they took him out.

He is now doing well at another special school.

As this mother points out, there are stupid logistical barriers to care which work against schools. 

Her child was six but wasn’t yet on the list for school age intervention so he had no access to therapies when he most needed them.

Gaps in services are not the schools’ fault but, sorry, they are not the parents’ fault either. 

Once the school accepts a kid, it is their responsibility to sort the child within normal school hours.

Let’s not hide the fact that challenging behaviour can be terrifying and dangerous and it is the duty of principal and board to keep staff and students safe.

However, the parent must not provide the fall-back service. 

The school should vigorously advocate for every child’s right to enough resources to have an education. 

It is a tiny minority which sadly must access full-time psychiatric care — if it is there, which it often isn’t.

Schools are putting parents in the dock as if they have caused their kids’ behaviour. 

They don’t want challenging kids and constant phone calls and reduced hours are one way to achieve that outcome.

One single mother of an eight-year-old with ASD, ADHD, and mild intellectual disability who was put on a one-hour day recalls regular phone calls from the special school, along the lines of: “Your son has fallen off his chair. Can you come and get him?”

Happily settled in another infant school, he has to move again next year — his mother has had 23 refusals from local primaries.

One father of an ASD senior infant recalls how he and wife forced the hand of the school to fully include their son. 

His wife reduced her hours of work, went into the school, and discovered there were three kids with special needs in the class, which was nicknamed ‘the zoo’. 

They wrote off the year but eventually the special needs kids were reallocated to different classes and now their boy is surviving school, though he is still “as mad as a brush”. 

His dad has quit a good job to provide ongoing support. 

He breaks down suddenly as he says: “That was the most important moment in this whole experience, when we told the school: ‘He’s all right. He can do this.’ 

I would say to parents, push the fuck back. They’ve got to accept the kids for who they are.”

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