Autistic children in North homeschooled due to lack of services – The Irish Times

Increasing numbers of autistic children in Northern Ireland are being homeschooled as mainstream classrooms “aren’t fit to support their needs”, a charity has warned.

Kerry Boyd, chief executive of Autism NI, said there was a notable rise in calls to its helpline compared to before the pandemic, about severe shortcomings in educational provision.

Official figures published last month show that one in 21 school-age children in the North has an autism diagnosis —quadruple that from a decade ago.

The charity’s concerns come a week after it emerged that more than 300 children with a statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) are without a school place for this September, including 91 who are waiting for a place in a special school and 202 seeking places in a mainstream school. The North’s Education Authority confirmed a “significant rise” in demand for special school places.

Two years ago, MLAs unanimously called on former education minister Peter Weir to introduce mandatory autism training for teachers and classroom assistants in mainstream settings as “a matter of urgency”.

While training was made available, it was never compulsory, a move which sparked outrage among affected families.

Ms Boyd told The Irish Times that inadequate training had led to more parents educating their children permanently at home.

“Autism NI’s helpline receives thousands of calls each year, with education remaining the main issue why parents and professionals contact us for support. A third of parents are telling us that their children are on a reduced school timetable due to their autism. I want to see reduced school timetables become a thing of the past,” she said.

“Parents are finding it difficult post-pandemic to settle their children back into school and when they do, they need the teacher to be understanding of their child’s autism. Many feel schools are not equipped or fit to support their needs.

“That’s why mandatory teaching-training is so important. We want to see autistic children in mainstream education; we don’t want to see them segregated because in the future they will become autistic adults in society.

“If teachers are given the correct skills and strategies to understand autism, they can support autistic children to reach their full potential and give them the same opportunities in life that every other child has. As it stands now, this is not happening.”

On Wednesday, the Education Authority announced a new regional plan to create school places to ensure that pupils with special educational needs can attend their nearest suitable school. The authority says the move will allow pupils to “adapt to their changing educational, physical and medical needs”.

EA director of education Michele Corkey said: “I am particularly pleased to launch the first stand-alone Special Education Strategic Area Plan, given the significant growth in the number of children with special educational needs in Northern Ireland.

“We need to ensure there is sufficient provision in both special schools and specialist provision in mainstream schools to meet the needs of local communities.”

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