Parents of Derry pupils with autism diagnoses exasperated at uncertainty over September school placements

The parents of several pupils with autism spectrum diagnoses have told the ‘Journal’ how weeks from the start of the 2021/22 year they still don’t know what schools their children will be going to.

By Kevin Mullan
Friday, 25th June 2021, 6:12 pm

The families, whose children will soon transition from primary to post-primary, spoke out due to their exasperation over how the placement process has been handled.

All have applied for their loved ones to be placed in the dedicated ASD unit at St. Brigid’s, Carnhill, of which they spoke in glowing terms.

However, two months out from the start of the school year there is no certainty about where their children are destined in September.

Sign up to our daily Derry Journal Today newsletter

Máire, the mother of one of the pupils, (names have been changed to preserve confidentiality), explained that the application process for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) statements commenced earlier than for mainstream pupils.

“We applied in December and we still don’t know what’s happening to our children. They are leaving school on Friday [today] and they are the only people in their class who don’t know what school they are going into so they can’t be prepared for transition.”

Autism prevalence rising but Western Trust rate among lowest in the northShe said that in an ideal world she would now be arranging transport and uniforms and that her daughter would have had a chance to have a look around her new school. That’s not the case, and instead they are faced with stress and uncertainty.

“They need to be prepared more than mainstream children. Yesterday my daughter found a report and asked, ‘is that my letter for school?’ What do I turn around and say? It’s just an awful situation. My other daughter and her cousin both got their letters. We are in a wee family WhatsApp group writing in congratulations and so on, posting ‘I got in.’ My daughter is writing, ‘what about me?’ What am I supposed to say to that child? She is still waiting. She still doesn’t know.”

‘Susan’ told the ‘Journal’ her son needs to be placed in an ASD unit. He will regress otherwise, she fears. This was his experience at primary school.

“Once a week they were putting him into a mainstream class. He got nowhere. He couldn’t handle the noise. He couldn’t handle the work, even the teacher when they raised their voice, he was taking a meltdown. On his SEN statement it is ‘ASD-class setting only’. He has ASD. He has sensory issues. He has really bad anxiety and he takes panic attacks. Take him outside the class setting and he takes panic attacks.”

‘Paula’ is just as adamant that an ASD unit alone will meet the developmental needs of her daughter.

She told the ‘Journal’ that if such a placement is not forthcoming she will even consider giving up her job to care for her at home from September.

“I have to make a decision. If my daughter doesn’t go to school in September I have to give up my work because I’ve no one to look after her. I’m in limbo. I got an email to say there was no decision yet. She has done seven years in mainstream. She has done her limit in mainstream. She is not coping as it is. It was recommended for her ‘small group setting ASD class.’”

“She needs personal care needs. There has to be an assistant to help her with that.”

“They keep telling me discussions are ongoing.”

Over 1,000 children in Western Trust area awaiting autism assessment - Derry MLA as new strategy launched‘Nuala’, the guardian of another of the children, said the Education Authority (EA) told her that they were looking at the possibility of placing her boy in a new class in a mainstream school in the city.

But she has does not feel this would be a suitable environment.

“They would be taking children from class to class making them stand out like sore thumbs for bullying. I said it is not happening. I have his statement and his amended statement from educational psychology and it is recommended he is taught in an ASD unit.”

This is a common theme.

Paula asked: “Why put it on the statement if they are not going to supply the place?” with Máire, also questioning: “Why go to all the effort of employing educational psychologists and paediatricians to make a recommendation for your child if they are just going to ignore it and say go to a different school?”

Last week Derry & Strabane Council’s Health and Community Committee unanimously passed a motion calling for the EA to ‘take immediate action to protect the rights and promote the educational welfare of these vulnerable children, securing appropriate post-primary school placements wherein their special needs will be met.’

Councillors also agreed to write to the Minister of Education about the matter.

Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly was among those who supported the motion. He has been assisting the families.

“I think it is an absolute disgrace that there are parents who have children who have statements of SEN and in that statement it says these children need to be educated in special educational settings yet they have been told that they are not going to be accepted. Some of them have autism, some of them have Asperger’s, rather than leave it to the very last minute to decide where these children are going to be sent, they should have been given priority.

“They should have been prepared and taken in around the schools to allow them to get ready for it.”

Colr. Donnelly claimed the EA had suggested settings for some of the children that would not be adequate for their educational needs.

“These children would have been more affected by COVID-19 because of their conditions and I think that is an added pressure. This has caused a lot of trauma and anxiety to the parents,” he said.

An EA spokesperson said: “Parents will be aware of pressures in relation to SEN specialist provision in the area. We are working with schools and parents to ensure suitable placements for September and are examining a number of options. If any parent has any questions or concerns, they can contact their child’s SEN Link Officer through their usual email or telephone contact details.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “The EA is responsible for placing children for whom it maintains statements of special educational needs. Children with statements are placed outside of the normal admissions process.”

One mainstream school in the city confirmed to the ‘Journal’ that it had been contacted by the EA in relation to the establishment of an ASD unit within its mainstream setting.

It said the EA is currently planning the out-workings of this provision for September 2021. It will accommodate up to eight pupils.