Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I wish to extend a céad míle fáilte to two groups in the Public Gallery this morning, AsIAm, which does Trojan work in raising awareness of autism throughout the country, and the Crumlin-based autism parent support group.
I raise this issue on foot of AsIAm's recent report entitled Invisible Children - Survey on School Absence and Withdrawal in Ireland's Autism Community. It is a national scandal that the right to an education is out of reach for so many autistic children at primary and secondary levels. A mother in her 30s is in jail this morning having been prosecuted for failing to send her children to school but this Government should be in the dock being prosecuted for the lack of places for autistic children at preschool, primary and secondary levels, which is preventing them from vindicating their right to an education.
There are several issues that the Minister for Education and Skills must address. He must ask the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to develop policy advice on school exclusion and school refusal. He must also ask the council to improve the level and quality of engagement by special education needs organisers, SENOs, with families, particularly those that are in crisis because of the lack of school places.
When the aforementioned report was published on Monday, the Department said that it was satisfied that there were enough suitable school places. It must be accepted that there is a shortage of autism classes and moreover, a shortage of suitable placements in mainstream and special schools. I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills commits to publishing plans on how every autistic child can access a suitable school placement for the next academic year.
We finally ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities late last year but we are not living up to our commitments in that regard. It is estimated that one in every 59 or 60 children in this country has autism and we are failing those children. This Government is failing Ireland's autistic children. I hope that the Minister of State will provide some succour in her response this morning. The Minister for Education and Skills must instruct schools to open ASD units. That has not happened yet and I do not know how far the Minister is prepared to go in that regard. Schools need instruction as well as support and resources in order to ensure that children with autism grow up healthy, happy and secure and are educated within their own communities. They should not have to travel for miles to access a school place. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.