Victoria White: Children with special needs should be allowed to go back to school

Children with special needs are struggling during the coronavirus lockdown and need the return of school support writes Victoria White

Victoria White: Children with special needs should be allowed to go back to school
The coronavirus lockdown is especially difficult for children who have special needs and for whom structure is crucial.

Ten weeks into lockdown and she can’t see her way out.

Her son, 17 and autistic, lies in bed all day and lashes out, verbally or physically, if she tries to engage with him.

His sleep patterns have gone to hell.

Last night, she gave him a bath at 1am to relax him.

Her husband, who is usually her son’s rock, is having chronic, stress-related headaches.

Her husband is working outside the home, but she’s home all day and her son towers over her.

Her son has been physically violent in the past and his meltdowns terrify her. The boy is in no way to blame for his actions.

He has lost the structure that helped him manage the day and his disability. His mother has lost the teachers and special needs assistants who usually share the work of caring for her son.

Her life is descending into hell and she can’t even get a psychological assessment for her son, which might open doors to different approaches, behavioural and medicinal, to regulate his moods.

The lockdown has made this family prisoners of their son’s misery. And there must be thousands like them, right now, all over Ireland.

The autism charity AsIAm reports 70% of their member families finding it hard to cope with the lockdown, while 80% of their autistic members have been having difficulties with self-regulation.

Victoria White: Children with special needs should be allowed to go back to school
The autism charity AsIAm reports 70% of their member families finding it hard to cope with the lockdown.

Not all children with autism have been suffering like this since March 12. My son, who is 19 and on the spectrum, seems to be enjoying the lockdown nearly as much as the dog.

I have the problem with Tom’s lockdown, because it means I have to write this in my shed at dawn.

But I have learned, in recent weeks, that Tom’s disability is more pronounced because the modern world is too busy for his sensory system.

For his sake, I’ve been asking the question brilliantly posed by Suzanne Harrington in these pages on Monday: “Do we want our old lives back?”

There’s one part of it that the parents of children with special needs definitely want back: Our special schools and classes.

No matter what their disability, our children were marched out of their schools and classes on March 12, along with all the other children in the country, with no contingency plan for their families.

Those children require constant care and vigilance. Some of them have such profound and complex needs that that constant care is beyond the capacity of a family and requires a team.

Many of the children don’t understand why they’re not in school and most of them are regressing educationally.

Victoria White: Children with special needs should be allowed to go back to school
The autism charity AsIAm reports 80% of their autistic members have been having difficulties with self-regulation.

That’s why England and Scotland didn’t send such vulnerable children home at all, but gave their families the option of keeping them in school.

The risk of Covid-19 infection they would pose to staff and to other students at school would be minimal.

Why? A report carried out in New South Wales showed that 18 confirmed cases of Covid-19 (nine pupils and nine staff), who had 863 close contacts at school, possibly infected two children and no staff. It’s just one study and our chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, quickly moved to quash hopes raised by the Taoiseach that schools might open before the autumn.

But our 119 special schools are a special case. They are small: Class sizes range from six, for autism, up to 12, for mild learning disability.

Our 1,620 special classes for autism typically have six children per class. Even if the rest of the school doesn’t return, they could.

It’s summer. Most of these children are already heavily resourced with outdoor space and take frequent movement breaks.

Many of those with autism could give tutorials on social distancing.

These children have been taken out of school because their non-disabled peers have been taken out of school and they are governed by the same patron bodies, government department, and unions.

They have been taken out of school because the system is more important than the children.

Shamefully, nobody in power has had the courage to stand up and say, “These children are different, their schools are different, and their needs are greater. Let them stay in school.”

I think that our special schools and special classes should open on June 1, the day mainstream British schoolchildren begin to return. That would give them the guts of a month in school and give families and siblings a break.

The extended school year, or July provision, should kick in for the following month.

This scheme gives special schools catering for children with autism, and/or a severe or profound learning disability, the option of staying open through July, because — note the heavy irony here — it is understood that these children regress educationally over a long summer break.

Children whose schools don’t stay open can have 40 hours of tuition at home, provided by a primary school teacher. It is thus clear that the Department of Education understands the exceptional learning challenges that long breaks from school pose to these disabled children.

I am asking them to channel that understanding into recalibrating the July provision for the Covid-19 summer.

In reply to Dáil questions posed by Social Democrat TD Jennifer Whitmore, Joe McHugh, the minister for education and skills, stated on May 11 that the department “had intended” to run the scheme, but was now “reviewing” its position: “The department is considering contingency measures, including changes to the format of the scheme,” the reply continued. “Any changes will be communicated widely.”

It has been known for years that the scheme is a mess. The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) recommended changes back in 2016 and an “implementation group” was set up. It was meant to complete its work this year.

Chief among its issues are the fact that the list of disabilities is too narrow and excludes many children, such as two with Down syndrome and serious learning disabilities who were last year granted the equivalent of July provision by the High Court.

And while an extension of school is optimal, one-to-one teaching by a primary teacher is rarely what these children want, or need, during the summer and is never evaluated.

The NCSE recommended a nationwide social and educational day programme to include all children with complex special educational needs.

This is the summer to do just that.

From my shed at dawn, I am calling on the Government to risk the change we have all embraced and break the lockdown for children with special needs.

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