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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 27 Mar 2002

Vol. 551 No. 3

Adjournment Debate. - Autism Services.

In raising this matter which refers primarily to County Kerry, I realise from discussions with my colleagues that it applies throughout the country. There is a dearth of services particularly in relation to the assessment of children, speech therapy, psychology services, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Parents in County Kerry asked me to give voice to their concerns.

In the past, we could defend circumstances because we had limited funding available for services and had to do the best we could, but recent successful years in the economy, when we had the best growth rates in the world, make it difficult to explain to people that we appear to be incapable of providing services to those with special needs. The situation is dire and I do not think that the people responsible for providing services understand the difficulties. When I raised this matter in the Dáil some weeks ago, I was told by the Minister for Health and Children, and subsequently by the Southern Health Board, that, for example, we had six whole-time equivalent occupational therapist posts in Kerry community services, but only two of the posts are filled. There were two further therapists employed in 2001, but one returned to Australia and the other was promoted elsewhere. That is not satisfactory for the parents living with children with special needs.

The statutory authorities seem to be incapable of responding to those needs. I do not think they appreciate the families' difficulties. This is particularly poignant at a time when we are preparing for the Special Olympics – we are all proud of the effort going into them. People who come to the country for those games will not see the shortage and the lack of services for our own people with special needs.

I wish that the Minister of State could give some hope and optimism to people throughout the country, not just in Kerry, whether they be carers or the parents of children who need special services. The Minister for Education and Science came into this House many months ago to say that he had an open cheque book to provide services for people with special needs. I tried many times to prise some money from that open cheque book for children with autism in County Kerry. Ten children with autism attend Nano Nagle special school in Listowel and they have no facilities of their own such as a specific classroom. In reply to my parliamentary question, the Minister inanely tells me that we are now spending X pounds more in 2002 than we spent in 1997. It is fantastic that we are spending more but we are not providing the services, which is the key issue. We are spending double on the health services but we are not providing the services there either. It is not the amount we spend but how effective the spending is that matters.

I do not expect results from the Minister of State at this hour of the night or from the Government this side of an election. It took it five years to discover the necessity of having a health strategy, and now the Government has outlined what it might do in the future, when it should have re-established the health services over the five years of the booming economy. There are enormous pressures on the parents of these children and I hope that the Minister and his officials will get the priorities right. We talk about spending billions on sports facilities at a time when families face these pressures every day. Small amounts of money correctly spent through the health boards, the Brothers of Charity and the special schools would build up the services. That must be the prime responsibility whatever Government is formed after the general election. It behoves all of us as politicians to reach out to these people who are asking for modest financial support to have personnel in place so that children with special needs can get the same entitlement as other children by virtue of our Constitution.

I would like to thank Deputy Spring for raising this matter and giving me, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, the opportunity to outline the position concerning this issue. Specific funding has been targeted to enhance the level of health related support services available to children with an intellectual disability and those with autism. Between 1998 and 2000, €6.35 million in additional funding was provided to expand the level of health related support services available to children with autism and their families. A further €4.44 million was allocated in 2001 for these services for both children with autism and those with an intellectual disability. Additional funding amounting to €3.809 million is also being made available for these services in 2002. This will include assessment and diagnostic services, early intervention, pre-school and out reach support for school children. These services are provided by multi-disciplinary teams which include speech and language and occupational therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nursing, project workers and other support staff.

Responsibility for the provision of health related support services, including speech and language therapy and psychology to children with special needs in County Kerry is a matter in the first instance for the Southern Health Board. Between 1999 and 2000, additional revenue funding amounting to €724,000 was allocated to the Southern Health Board for the enhancement of health related support services for children with autism. A further €317,000 was made available in 2001, with another €10,317 million coming on stream in 2002 for health related support services for both children with autism and those with an intellectual disability. In addition to this ring fenced funding, children with disabilities will also have benefited from the additional therapy posts which have been put in place in services for persons with a physical or sensory disabilities.

The filling of posts which provide speech and language therapy and a clinical psychological service to school age children is a priority for the Southern Health Board. There are five specific posts for speech and language therapists in the intellectual disability agencies in County Kerry, three of which are currently vacant, as has been outlined by Deputy Spring.

That is the problem.

I will come to the reason for that. It is difficult to fill these posts.

The Minister has only two minutes remaining.

Perhaps I will get a chance to return to this issue at the end.

There are also six psychologists posts for the county, of which three are still vacant, despite numerous advertising campaigns, both nationally and internationally.

I have been informed by the board that 28.5 posts have to date been allocated to the health related support services for children with autism from the specific funding allocated for this purpose. A considerable proportion of these resources have been allocated to establish a regional assessment team, which is managed by the Brothers of Charity on behalf of the region. Funding for two speech and language therapists posts and a psychologist has been allocated to date specifically for the services in County Kerry.

While significant additional resources have been made available to the health boards in recent years to enhance the level of health related support services available to children with disabilities, the boards and other service providers have been encountering difficulties in both recruiting and retaining the allied health professionals necessary to deliver the various therapy services. In acknowledgment of these difficulties, my Department asked the Eastern Regional Health Authority and the health boards to explore other possibilities with a view to facilitating as many children as possible to access the necessary support services. It is a matter, however, for each health board and the Eastern Regional Health Authority to determine what additional measures the service in their region might undertake to facilitate this access.

In response to the concern of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, over the current labour shortages affecting the therapy professions nationwide, the Department commissioned a report on current and future supply and demand conditions in the labour market for certain professional therapists. The study, which was published in July 2001, concluded that a major expansion is essential in the numbers of each of the therapy grades, requiring a significant increase in training places.

The Minister, Deputy Martin, is working with the Minister for Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority to increase the numbers in training for these professions in line with the needs identified in the report. In addition, I understand a concerted overseas recruitment campaign will be initiated shortly by the Northern Area Health Board on behalf of the health boards to supply professional therapists, including speech and language therapists. These measures, together with continued investment in the services, will greatly assist in delivering an enhanced level of support in these areas to children with an intellectual disability and those with autism and their families.

I assure the Deputy that this Government is committed to the continued development of services for children with disabilities, including the health related support services provided to children in special schools and other educational settings and to working with the Southern Health Board to bring about an enhanced level of support for those availing of their services.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle—

There is no provision for supplementary questions or statements on the Adjournment.

In relation to the record, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle—

I call Deputy Kenny who has given me notice of his intention to raise the matter of the need to extend the scheme of social services facilities for elderly people to cater for provision of emergency lighting units.

This will take half a sentence. I am just offering information.

Sorry, Deputy Spring, there is no provision and, in fairness to the staff of the House, we should not extend the sitting beyond that which is provided for in the Standing Order.

You are talking to one of the most courteous Members of this House.

I accept that, Deputy, but there is no provision in the Standing Order for supplementary statements.

I just want to inform the Minister of State that the Southern Health Board has been recruiting in New Zealand. Obviously the Minister of State is not aware of that.

There is a problem in recruiting—

The Minister of State should not answer questions that come by way of interruption. I call Deputy Kenny.

I give way to my colleague.

That is one of the things that is wrong with this House, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I would have liked Deputy Spring to have the opportunity to correct the record.