A SHANNON mother has this week opened up about the struggle she is having to get her little son a place in an ASD unit, when he begins national school in September.
Lesleyanne Casey is a mother of three, who lives in Cluain Airne. At the moment her youngest son, five-year-old Noah attends an early intervention class in Stonehall, where he has made huge progress.
“His speech when he first went there was basically non-existent. It has really improved. He’s more sociable. He’s just come along so much; he has matured that little bit as well.
“He loves being out there, loves being the centre of attention. The kids inside in that school are fantastic. They’re very open-minded, all of the children, all the staff.
“They run lots of days of autism awareness and they make them feel like they’re the most important people in the world, which is brilliant.”
She says the staff there are immense, while she praises Diarmuid McMahon as “a wonderful, wonderful principal”.
However, he will have to move on next September and it is extremely difficult to get the support one needs for an autistic child unsuited to a mainstream classroom nowadays.
Lesleyanne approached the local Gaelscoil in Shannon but found out there were only two places becoming available next year and her son was going in at number seven on a waiting list.
Speaking to a woman she receives assistance from in the Department of Education, she found out there are few available facilities anywhere nearby.
“I was explaining the situation to her. She said there’s two spaces right now in Ballycar but come September, with the rotation system, they’ll be gone.
“Cratloe is full up, Sixmilebridge is full up, Newmarket is full up, Shannon is full up. And I said, ‘so where does that leave us?’
“She said, ‘Well, that’s the question you have to ask yourself because I’ve tried’.”
The woman in question told her that many schools won’t deliver facilities for children with autism, even when offered resources.
Lesleyanne feels that such schools often use their grounds for things that can improve their funding position instead. “Many of these schools have privatised creches or preschools on their grounds. Now, from what I understand, I pay my taxes and all the rest of it to build schools and the Government own these schools. So why? Why are the children not being educated inside there, instead of getting extra money from privatised businesses? I don’t understand that.
“It’s just very frustrating to think these areas could be opened up for ASD units and they’re using the excuse they don’t have the room.”
What she is looking for Noah to have is quite basic. “I just want him to have an education. I want him to have the same start in life that my other two children had and that every other child around here is having.”
While schools are now obliged to take on responsibility for ASD units if the resources are available, she says this has only ever been enforced once.
This time last year, Lesleyanne says she never expected to hear Noah speak but with plenty of assistance and individual care given to him, he has been able to make dramatic progress.
It’s very possible that he could build on this after starting national school but only if he continues to get the help required.
“Look at how much has happened in a year and a half of being in Stonehall, how much he has improved due to that one on-one action. Imagine what he could be like if he has another year or two of it?”
In general, Lesleyanne feels it may not be understood how much progress can be made if children get what they require.
“If a lot of these schools opened up, they would find that a lot of these children who right now require ASD units, with that extra bit of help and attention for maybe a year, would find that they’re more capable of doing mainstream school. But they just need that extra bit of attention when they’re smaller.”
Raising a child with autism is very hard, not least because there is so much bureaucracy to be negotiated and basics like getting educated in a local primary school can’t be taken for granted.
“You look at your baby and they are the most beautiful, perfect being in the world. And then someone comes along and hands you a big huge file about that thick with all the reasons why they’re not perfect and why they’re not beautiful. And you have to sit there and you have to read this and you have to send it to this one and that one. Over and over again you feel like you’re selling your child out, because you’re showing them all their deficiencies. It’s heartbreaking.
“It’s hard enough having to get things like the domiciliary allowance or even the carer’s benefit I’m on at the moment, trying to get those kinds of things.
“If you saw the amount of paperwork and understand the things that we’ve had to go through to get a speech therapist, to get him into schools. Phone calls, letters… You name it, we have done it. It’s a fight, a daily fight. Something as simple as his education should not be this hard. It shouldn’t be.”
Education nowadays seeks to instil respect for people’s rights in young people but Lesleyanne believes that young children with autism are not having their rights respected by the education system. “You’re teaching people every day about social inclusion, about acceptance about every other kind of right under the sun and yet you will push children with special needs aside. If my son was in a wheelchair and he wasn’t allowed to go to school, there’d be uproar.
“If he was a different religion, a different colour, different ethnic background and he wasn’t allowed to go to school or he couldn’t get a place to go to school, there’d be war. Why is it so different because he’s autistic?”