There are approximately 14,000 students with autism in the school system. This is significantly higher than the original estimate of one in every 100 students.
The statistics come from a National Council for Special Education report published yesterday, the first of its kind on autism in almost 14 years.
Of the 14,000 students with autism, 63% are in mainstream classes, 23% are in special classes in mainstream schools, and 14% are in special schools.
The 14,000 figure means that 1.5% of the Irish school population has a diagnosis of autism.
Compared to the last time such a report was carried out in 2001, there are now 2,200 extra teachers in mainstream schools specifically to support students with autism.
Furthermore, there are 900 special classes for pupils with autism, compared with just 80 in 2001.
In terms of resources, more than €300m is now invested annually in providing support for students with autism in the school system. This investment goes towards things such as additional teaching and technology.
While the report acknowledged that students with autism are better supported in our schools than previously, a number of recommendations were made.
These include improving support at post-primary level and the development of a “safe, social summer day activity programme for all students with complex educational needs”, to replace the July Provision scheme.
The Department of Education has established an implementation group to consider the recommendations of the report.
The chief executive of the National Council for Special Education, Teresa Griffin, said we need a flexible approach in our school system to support all students’ needs.
“We need a flexible and responsive educational system which can draw on, and use, a range of evidence-informed interventions in line with each individual student’s needs,” said Ms Griffin.
Education Minister Richard Bruton acknowledged how children with autism are much better supported nowadays but noted the report’s key recommendations to further improve the system.
“The report also considers that there is room for improvement and sets out 11 key recommendations designed to improve the current system. Each key recommendation suggests actions to bring these improvements about,” he said.
The founder and CEO of autism charity AsIAm.ie, Adam Harris, also welcomed the report but said it was crucial a “whole school” approach was cultivated to support all students’ needs.
“It’s welcomed that we now have a policy document on autism, but we need a whole school approach and training is essential,” he told the Irish Examiner.
“In terms of the recommendations, it’s now what can be done to make these a reality. It’s up to teachers and boards of management in schools to implement some of them, but inclusion should never be optional.
“Inclusion is about having a whole school approach, schools must engage with these recommendations.
“We need to ensure that teachers in special classes are suitably trained.”