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Government brought shame on State by fighting Ó Cuanachán family – Ó Caoláin

12 February, 2008


Sinn Féin Dáil Leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, speaking in the Dáil this evening on a private members motion is support of children with Autism, said the Government has brought shame and disgrace on the State by fighting the Ó Cuanachán family and other families all the way through the courts in order to deny their children the right to the education which their special needs require.

Deputy Ó Caoláin said, "On behalf of the Sinn Féin Deputies I fully support this motion on the dire situation in our country for children with autism and their parents. I totally reject the amendment in the name of the Minister for Education Deputy Mary Hanafin. I regret to say that the Minister's approach on this matter has demonstrated a degree of intransigence and authoritarianism that should have no place in public administration. Even by the admission of the Minister in her amendment, education for children with autism and other special needs is an area of historic under-provision.

"It is very important to state that this is not a debate between two sets of educationalists about what methods are most appropriate to educate children with autism. There has been an attempt to present this as a pro and anti-ABA argument. It is not. This is about ensuring that every child with autism, as of right, has access to the forms of education most appropriate to his or her individual needs. It is about the ongoing failure of the State to meet these needs despite the commitments that have been made since the Report of the Task Force on Autism in 2001.

"Yes, progress has been made and we readily acknowledge it. Thanks first and foremost to the efforts of the parents of children with autism this area of historic neglect has been addressed by Government at long last. But the State's provision is so limited and the Minister's approach is so restrictive that parents are still going to court to vindicate the rights of their autistic children. The Government has brought shame and disgrace on the State by fighting the Ó Cuanachán family and other families all the way through the courts in order to deny their children the right to the education which their special needs require.

"The Minister claims that the educational model provided in the Department's special classes is eclectic and appropriate for children with autism. But it is not appropriate for all children with autism.

"Let there be no confusion on this. The Minister's refusal to provide for ABA education is not about the needs of children. It is not about favouring one educational model over another. It is about money. The Minister and her Department have got it into their heads that providing ABA for all who need it will be far too costly and therefore square pegs must be forced into round holes.

"I urge the Minister to reconsider her intransigent position, to withdraw her amendment and to work with the parents of children with autism, their teachers and all concerned in the education and health services to provide these children with the care and education they so badly need and deserve." ENDS

Full text of speech follows:

Private Members Business 12.2.08

Autism

On behalf of the Sinn Féin Deputies I fully support this motion on the dire situation in our country for children with autism and their parents. I totally reject the amendment in the name of the Minister for Education Deputy Mary Hanafin. I regret to say that the Minister's approach on this matter has demonstrated a degree of intransigence and authoritarianism that should have no place in public administration. Even by the admission of the Minister in her amendment, education for children with autism and other special needs is an area of historic under-provision. More importantly it is an area of great pain and fear and distress for the children and parents affected. In that context the approach of the Minister and her Department, supported by her Government colleagues, is totally inappropriate and inflexible and is causing more distress to already distressed children and parents.

It is very important to state that this is not a debate between two sets of educationalists about what methods are most appropriate to educate children with autism. There has been an attempt to present this as a pro and anti-ABA argument. It is not. This is about ensuring that every child with autism, as of right, has access to the forms of education most appropriate to his or her individual needs. It is about the ongoing failure of the State to meet these needs despite the commitments that have been made since the Report of the Task Force on Autism in 2001.

In 2005 the Sinn Féin TDs put forward a motion and used our Private Members Time to demand real action in support of children with special needs, including those with autism. The motion included the following points:

· While progress has been made in the area of special needs education, including the passage of the Education for Persons with Special Needs Act 2004, families still find it necessary to seek redress in the courts for the failure of the State to meet the needs of their children.

· The Government must allocate the resources required to meet the special needs and equal rights of all.

· We urge deployment of teachers be based on the right of each individual pupil to have his or her special educational needs assessed and on the right of each pupil to the resources required to ensure that each can reach his or her full potential.

· We urge the full implementation of the recommendations of the Report on Educational Provision and Support for Persons with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (Report of the Task Force on Autism, 2001).

That motion was debated here almost exactly three years ago. Yes, progress has been made and we readily acknowledge it. Thanks first and foremost to the efforts of the parents of children with autism this area of historic neglect has been addressed by Government at long last. But after three years we also find that the State's provision is so limited and the Minister's approach is so restrictive that parents are still going to court to vindicate the rights of their autistic children. The Government has brought shame and disgrace on the State by fighting the Ó Cuanachán family and other families all the way through the courts in order to deny their children the right to the education which their special needs require.

The stance of the Minister is contradictory as well as intransigent. Funding has been provided for 12 ABA schools. Most of these schools were established at the initiative of parents when there was virtually no support from the State for the education of children with special needs. But now that the Department has made some progress and established more special classes it wants to close the door on the development of further ABA schools. It is closing off this option for children who desperately need it. And to justify this stance the Minister and her Department are attempting to discredit the proven benefits of ABA. The Minister's defence of her refusal to fund these schools has been demolished by the co-author of the Report of the Task Force on Autism, Dr. Rita Honan of Trinity College. Dr. Honan points out that the Task Force placed an emphasis on the need for options for parents and a range of essential supports for children. Obviously every child with autism does not require full-scale ABA education. But the option must be there for those who need it.

One of the most telling commentaries has been written by Adrienne Murphy (Irish Times 1/2/08) the mother of a four-year-old boy with autism and a journalist. The Minister should consider very carefully what Adrienne Murphy has written:

"What the Department is failing to acknowledge is that autism is a spectrum disorder. Although many of the children on the mild 'high-functioning' end of the spectrum do not require ABA, study after international study show that children on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum most definitely do need the intensive, scientifically-driven, evidence-based, individualised one-to-one intervention that ABA provides. Without it, their chances of leading anything like a normal life are severely diminished."

The Minister claims that the educational model provided in the Department's special classes is eclectic and appropriate for children with autism. But it is not appropriate for all children with autism. To return to Adrienne Murphy:

"The Department of Education has tried to get around this by saying that the the eclectic model contains elements of ABA. For children on the severe end of autism, this is like offering someone falling through the sky a small portion of a parachute with which to try to land."

Let there be no confusion on this. The Minister's refusal to provide for ABA education is not about the needs of children. It is not about favouring one educational model over another. It is about money. The Minister and her Department have got it into their heads that providing ABA for all who need it will be far too costly and therefore square pegs must be forced into round holes. I would remind the Minister what she herself stated when she replied to the debate on the Sinn Féin motion on special needs education in 2005.

"In particular the Minister for Finance is obliged to have due regard to the State's duty to provide for an education appropriate to the needs of every child under the Constitution and the necessity to provide equity of treatment for all children."

The Government has clearly failed to meet that obligation and children and parents are suffering as a result.

I urge the Minister to reconsider her intransigent position, to withdraw her amendment and to work with the parents of children with autism, their teachers and all concerned in the education and health services to provide these children with the care and education they so badly need and deserve.

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