Derry autism pioneerspraised at Stormont

Derry City & Strabane District Council, the city’s support groups and its main shopping centres, are leading the way in making public spaces more inclusive for people with an autism diagnosis.

Saturday, 8th February 2020, 6:35 pm
Foyle Sinn Fein MLA Karen Mullan

That’s according to local MLAs who said Derry was pioneering accessibility during a debate on autism training for schools at Stormont.

Sinn Féin MLA Karen Mullan said: “In the North, one in 30 children has a diagnosis of autism. The vast majority of those children are educated in a mainstream setting, which shows the need for autism training for teachers and classroom assistants.

“In my city of Derry, Derry City and Strabane District Council and our two main shopping centres have led the way in making our public venues inclusive for all.

“Part of that has been training all front-line staff in autism awareness. If we can do that in our public and private sectors, why are we not providing that training to our teaching staff, who have our children in their care anywhere up to 30 hours a week?”

The Sinn Féin education spokesperson was speaking in support of a motion tabled by DUP MLA Pam Cameron that called on the Education Minister Peter Weir to explore the introduction of autism training for teachers and classroom assistants.

DUP MLA Gary Middleton, backing the motion, praised the work of the Circle of Support parent-led organisation working to raise awareness of autism in Derry.

“I recognise the Circle of Support organisation in my constituency and the many parent-led organisations that do fantastic voluntary work. The support that they provide is very important. There is no doubt that there is widespread support for the motion. We know that, just last September, a rally was held here at Stormont. We know that there was an online petition with over 10,000 signatories. It is a hugely emotive issue,” said the vice-chair of the Stormont Health Committee.

SDLP MLA Mark. H. Durkan said: “In my constituency, there was uproar and outrage last year when I uncovered the fact that the Western Trust was unable to use its allocation of funding for the autism pathway project and that money was sent back, despite the fact that we had in that trust area over 800 people waiting on a list for assessment.

“That befuddled many, particularly those working hard in the community to support individuals and families with autism, and we are lucky to have several of those organisations in Derry. Gary Middleton mentioned Circle of Support, and Parents of Older Children with Autism (POCA) and the Jigsaw Project are another couple that do sterling work. I was glad last week to have it confirmed to me by the Western Trust that significant steps had been taken and were being taken to address its huge shortcomings in that area.”

Education Minister Peter Weir said: “I will be happy to work with others to ensure that there is access to adequate, appropriate training programmes in initial teacher education and in continuing professional development. That has to borrow heavily from the experience of parents and teachers.”