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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 3 Jul 2001

Vol. 167 No. 10

Adjournment Matter. - Special Educational Needs.

I welcome the Minister. The matter I am raising has been raised by colleagues in the other House. It relates to the establishment of a CABAS unit for autistic children in Dublin. I know the Minister is aware of the ongoing situation, but I ask him to update the House regarding the reviews carried out and the ongoing monitoring of the comprehensive application of behaviour analysis to schooling, CABAS, project.

A significant number of people suffer from autism and I hope, following a review of the projects run up to now, the Minister will be able to provide extra facilities. I have been contacted by a number of people, including a close friend whose three and a half year old child is autistic, in this regard. The Minister has had other problems to deal with this year but the case for those who suffer from autism is meritorious and I hope there is support and sympathy in general to ensure appropriate resources are made available.

I have spoken to my colleague, Deputy Creed, our party spokesperson on education, regarding the provision of extra resources. The Minister is well aware more resources should, and I hope will, be made available. Apart from the need for resources, the case for further projects and schools is meritorious and I understand a location has been identified in Dublin. Unfortunately, autism sufferers do not comprise the biggest lobby group.

In the context of the review of the Cork project and ongoing research it is important to recognise various characteristics among autism sufferers. Some of the most common include avoiding eye contact; disinterest in people or play; unusual fears such as a fear of colour; inappropriate use of toys; resistance to learning; obsessive spinning of objects; lack of awareness of dangers; and ability to ignore loud sounds. There is positive evidence that a child with autism responds often dramatically to the stimulus of special education and training and in a suitable environment children and young adults can learn basic living skills which compensate, at least in part, for the problems they experience.

Experience has shown to date that such an environment is best provided by way of family-like community settings; special schools for children with autism; skill based training centres; organising staff to assist in the development of people with autism; and residential homes in family sized units. There is no simplistic solution to the problem such as throwing money at it but I am sure the Minister, given his wide experience, has met various groups and will respond positively to further representations.

Will the Minister outline progress on this issue? Will he give a commitment in principle to make the necessary resources available? There needs to be a follow-up to the Cork project. Given the large population in Dublin, is the Kilbarrack venture a definite runner? I hope the Minister will give a positive response despite the many applications he receives for resources in other areas. He could do with more resources similar to other Ministers but the case for autism sufferers is self-made. If he is unable to answer all the questions I have put, perhaps he will come back to me later.

I am aware of the proposal put forward by a group of parents who wish to establish a CABAS unit in Dublin and have had a number of meetings with representatives of the group. The CABAS facility in Cork, to which the Senator referred, was established in 1999 to cater for up to 12 children with autism. This facility was established on a five year pilot basis to test the appropriateness and effectiveness of addressing the educational needs of children with autism through a model based on the comprehensive application of behaviour analysis to schooling.

As part of my Department's agreement to fund the operation of the Cork CABAS facility, it was agreed by all concerned that the project was being established on a pilot basis and that further expansion in the use of the CABAS model would be considered at the end of the pilot period and following an evaluation of the pilot programme. This process is now moving faster. In May this year my Department commissioned the UK based National Foundation for Educational Research to carry out an independent evaluation of all current State funded models of response to children with autism, including the CABAS facility in Cork. The foundation has already been in touch with the CABAS facility as part of the evaluation process. The outcome of this evaluation is due to be presented to my Department in October.

I established a special task force on autism to review the adequacy of my Department's current range of responses to the educational needs of children with autism and make recommendations on the future development of services in this area. The task force comprises people with a wide range of expertise and experience in the field of autism. It has also had the benefit of presentations from experts in the field from the United Kingdom and the United States. In addition, the task force has considered a substantial number of submissions from interested parties.

The future role of the CABAS model and other models of applied behavioural analysis in the education of children with autism is among the issues addressed by the task force. I expect to receive the report of the task force in the near future. The House will appreciate that, as Minster, I have a particular responsibility to ensure any models of educational provision made available to children with autism are appropriate and beneficial to the children in question. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that I should await the outcome of the evaluation referred to before funding the further expansion of the CABAS model.

At a meeting with representatives of the Dublin parents group on Friday last, officials of my Department put forward proposals for the development of special dedicated provision for their children. These proposals envisage the establishment of two special dedicated classes for the children in question. Each class will have the support of a qualified teacher and two special needs assistants and cater for a maximum of six children. My Department has indicated that further special needs assistant support will be provided if judged necessary on the basis of professional assessments.

My Department has also indicated its willingness to fund the delivery of special dedicated training for the teachers of the classes in question to enable them to better meet the needs of the children in question. The question of providing supplementary home based tuition for the children in question will also be considered on the basis of professionally assessed needs. The representatives of the parents group have undertaken to consider these proposals and respond to my Department as soon as possible. The arrange ments proposed by my Department will result in the delivery of a satisfactory response to the educational needs of the children in question.

I appreciate the need for special care and attention for children with autism and the need for special educational training. However, when I began work on this issue, there was only a handful of classes attached to the mainstream system. There are 80 classes now and that has not been widely appreciated. We are moving rapidly in that area, but it does not mean we have all the answers. The task force is looking at the various issues to help us in that regard. Some parents prefer to have a mix of systems, but it is important to provide the supports that are needed.

The Senator also spoke about the best way to spend the money to ensure the necessary resources are provided. I assure him that based on the professional assessment, we will meet those needs. The Government has given an undertaking to do that. Things are moving so fast in that direction we must ensure we work within the mainstream to the greatest extent possible and in the best interests of those children. That is being developed at present. As regards Kilbarrack, school facilities are available there and there is an opportunity to work within that area. I hope that can be concluded shortly.

I thank the Minister.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 July 2001.