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‘Our lives would crumble’

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Joanna Dunne is pictured at home with her son Julian.

Autistic children told to move to school 30 kilometers away or lose funding

Oisín McGovern

THREE children with autism have been told to move to a school nearly 30 kilometres away, as funding for their education is being withheld by the Department of Education.
The children, who are currently enrolled at Ros na Réaltóg Forest School in Ross, have been offered places at an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) early intervention class Newport NS.
Ros na Réaltóg had applied for funding from the Home Tuition Grant scheme, which entitles children to 20 hours of early intervention education per week.
According to Department of Education and Skills guidelines, Home Tuition is only provided as an ‘interim measure’ for children with an ASD diagnosis for whom a place in a recognised school is not available.
Newport NS and St Attracta’s NS in Charlestown currently have the only ASD Early Intervention classes in Mayo.
Ros na Réaltóg Forest School is a private preschool supported through the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) as part of the Government-funded Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme.
Joanna Dunne, mother of three-year-old Julian, said that she feels she is being ‘bullied’ into sending her child to Newport NS, which is around 30 kilometres away from her home.
Since being diagnosed with non-verbal autism a year-and-a-half ago, Julian has received no speech-and-language therapy, occupational therapy or physiotherapy within the public system.
Ms Dunne described the education he has received at Ros Na Réaltóg as ‘a godsend’ and said his behaviour would regress if he changed schools.
“I cried for three days when I got the offer of this school,” she said. Her other children are attending Crimlin NS and Davitt College.

‘Amazing’
Joanna said her son’s behaviour has greatly improved attending the preschool, which focuses on outdoor activities.
“He is loving outdoor messy play with water, which he is getting. The sensory input he is getting there is very important for his development because that’s learning through play. He listens when he’s playing with water. It’s actually amazing,” Joanna told The Mayo News.
“I’m a full-time manager in a coffee shop… so I’ve managed to settle everything around my work schedule and school. If he had to go somewhere else, which isn’t even an option for me, our lives would crumble, his life would crumble,” she said.
“The current word is ‘inclusion’. Everywhere you hear ‘inclusion’, ‘inclusion’. For my son, inclusion is to stay at Ros na Réaltóg with his family, with his brother, with his sister, with the people that he knows around. That’s inclusion to me.”

Filling a need
Ros Na Réaltóg began applying to the Department of Education for Home Tuition funding earlier this year and recruited a play therapist and two teachers with experience in special education.
In October, parents of the children with ASD were told that the department would not be providing Home Tuition funding as places had become available at Newport NS. The children would be entitled to free public transport to and from the school.
Róisín Geddes, who is a teacher at the Ros na Réaltóg, said that the children’s parents were being denied the right to send their children to the school of their choice.
Ms Geddes described Newport NS as ‘a brilliant school’, but said having to travel so far away would cause distress for the children and their families, even though they would be entitled to public transport.
“We have created this in our own community so that children can remain in their community and don’t have to travel 25 miles in the other direction,” she said.
“What we are doing is putting in place something that they are already short of – places for the children,” Ms Geddes said.
“What we are offering is that plus all of the traditional support which has the speech-and-language and the play therapy attached. The children are benefiting even more so because of the circumstances that we are in. Now we are going to take that away from them. For what?”

Department response
Ms Geddes said that it will not be possible to continue employing the necessary staff if Home Tuition funding is not provided for Ros na Réaltóg.
She said that Ros na Réaltóg intends to work closely with nearby Crimlin NS when the children with ASD are old enough to attend primary school.
“After all of that process they decided this is what we’re offering the families instead, without considering the needs of the child, the inclusion of the children and the family circumstances around their attendance to this alternative placement,” she said.
“That’s our argument around why the needs of the child need to be listened to. The needs of the families are not being listened to.”
The school and affected families have liaised with the Department of Education, TDs Michael Ring and Alan Dillon and Ministers Anne Rabbitte, Josepha Madigan and Roderic O’Gorman regarding the matter.
In a statement issued to The Mayo News, the Department of Education said that there were a sufficient number of early intervention classes available locally.
“While the Department does not comment on individual cases, the NCSE has confirmed to the Department that there are a sufficient number of early intervention class places available locally, based on those children and their families who have made themselves known to the NCSE,” a department spokesperson said.
“The local special educational needs organiser (SENO) remains available to support families of children with SEN in the area seeking school placements.”