Special Needs Motion

February 13th, 2008 - Pat Breen

^ Private Members’ Business. ^

^ Special Educational Needs: Motion (Resumed). ^

13th February, 2008

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome members of the Clare autism action group who have travelled to Dublin to listen to the debate. Many people will remember the film “Rain Man”, which was made in 1988 and depicted to the wider world the difficulties with social interaction and communications faced by children born with autism. As a spectrum disease, however, children diagnosed with autism may act completely differently and have varying skills.

Despite her remark last night that “all children are different and children with autism are different”, the Minister has decided not to approve further ABA centres. She will decide what is best for children with autism. Surely the parents of children with autism know what is best for their children. Following the failure of the recent Ó Cuanacháin case, a spokesperson for the Irish Autism Action Group stated that litigation was the last desperate resort for parents. Unfortunately, following the Minister’s refusal to fund new ABA centres, I fear that more and more parents will be forced to go before the courts.

Parents of autistic children face a daily struggle, one which all parents of children with special needs must undertake to secure proper educational facilities for their children. The Minister stated last night that 3,600 children were attending special classes in mainstream and special schools. In June 2005, I was pleased to learn that an autism unit for Kilrush national school in County Clare had been given the green light. The decision ended a 70 mile journey for parents in Ennis. However, three years later the children in question are still using a prefabricated building.

The west Clare voices for autism group is frustrated at the lack of services available. The shortage of funding means the group has been waiting for three years to meet a psychologist to obtain advice for the parent of a ten year old girl, one of many children on the waiting list. Long waiting lists for psychologists and speech therapists are commonplace. One mother recently told me that while children aged up to six years can secure some level of service, those aged between six and 18 years are left behind. She pleaded with me to highlight the fact that every child is an individual with individual needs and urged the provision of adequate facilities and respite houses to stimulate the imagination of the children.

This morning, I received an e-mail from a father who calls himself a “luck” parent. His son attends the ABA school in Galway. His wife gave up work and drives almost 1,000 miles each week to ensure her son receives the education recommended for him. Is that a luck parent?

In June 2006, the Clare autism action group submitted a business case to establish an ABA school. In January this year, it was advised by the Department that funding would not be made available for the project. Members of the group are devastated. Of the 12 ABA schools, only two of them are located in the west, namely, in Cork and Galway. The Minister’s decision to refuse funding for the proposed school in County Clare is short-sighted. She should be present to listen to the agonising plea for help from a man on the west Clare peninsula whom I know well. He is the father of an 11 year old girl with autism. This morning he asked me what would happen to his beautiful daughter in two years’ time when she leaves national school. Why, he asked, has west Clare been overlooked? He said he was worn out from fighting and asked whether he would have to start fighting again.

I urge the Minister to rethink her strategy. Parents and children with autism must shape their future. The issue cannot be left to chance. Every child can learn, just not on the same day or in the same way. Perhaps the Minister can learn something from these words.