I thank the Minister for attending to address the issue of primary school places for children diagnosed with autism, in particular in Kildare South, which is my constituency. I have received many queries from distraught parents who are trying to acquire the best possible education and supports for children with autism at primary and secondary levels. Those in the latter face State exams and must have access to the necessary supports, but I will use this short time to discuss primary education.
Primary schools are getting holidays this week and pupils are looking forward to summer. Many parents are preparing their young children to attend primary school in September, a significant milestone in anyone's life. The Minister supports the notion that every child deserves access to a full education, an equal chance to attend school at the appropriate age and within reasonable reach of his or her home, and to be educated in the manner most suitable to him or her.
South Kildare has been frustrated by a lack of resources for primary schoolchildren with autism. In recent weeks, four parents have approached my constituency office to report that their children, each of whom is well above schoolgoing age, cannot get places in the county, let alone near their homes or in the schools attended by their siblings. One case went through section 29 and the school made it clear that it would happily accommodate the child by opening another classroom were funding provided, but this was turned down. A sibling with autism is attending the same school and doing well.
I welcome the initiative in Kildare-Wicklow of the autism register. As an education professional, I believe we must stop simply fighting fires. The recent census had no way of recording whether a child had special needs, such as autism. That did not bode well in terms of planning ahead.
The situation faced by the families in question is not being resolved. Section 2 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, EPSEN, required that a child with special educational needs should be educated in an inclusive environment with children who did not have such needs unless the nature or degree of the child's needs were such that to do so would be inconsistent with his or best interests and the effective provision of education for the other children. Twelve years on and with a greater knowledge of what is required in schools for all children, including those with autistic spectrum disorders, ASDs, any progress has been whittled away. There has been no reduction in class sizes, there has been yo-yoing on the entitlement to special needs assistants, SNAs, and there has been no year-on-year increase in the number of ASD classes when the demand obviously exceeds the supply. There are fewer than 20 ASD classes at primary level in south Kildare. Each can accommodate six children, amounting to 120 across the constituency. The Department has not sanctioned new classes for that part of the country for the coming school year, resulting in only those places vacated by children, usually in moving to secondary level, becoming available. The Minister has referred to a range of placement options and supports for schools that have enrolled pupils with ASD, but what of the options for children who cannot enrol? Must they wait until next year? Will there be places then? How long should a child wait before a place becomes available?
The proposed national autism registry is intended to highlight the shortfall in education and health services for children with ASD. The pilot phase has been launched in Kildare-west Wicklow and I encourage parents to register, as it is essential for the advanced planning of resources that accurate information, including medical and educational histories, be gathered on each child from diagnosis through development. I hope the register helps to provide a symbiotic relationship between health and education in terms of children with autism.