Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Questions (62)

Niamh Smyth


62. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Education and Skills if discussions have taken place to provide applied behaviour analysis services within the proposal to bring specialised therapists into schools and preschools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29227/18]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

I thank Deputy Murphy O'Mahony for allowing me to do this and the Minister for taking the question.

This relates to applied behaviour analysis, ABA, services. The Little Wonders early intervention centre in Castleblaney provides this highly scientific treatment for children with disabilities. The centre is headed up by Claire Callan who has done fabulous work. I ask the Minister to make a statement on my question.

As the question I have does not refer specifically to Castleblaney, I hope the answer is along the right lines.

The reply refers to the demonstration project that was recently announced to provide an in-school and preschool therapy service, to be introduced for the 2018-19 school year. The project will be managed and co-ordinated by the National Council for Special Education. The model has been developed by the Departments of Education and Skills, Children and Youth Affairs, and Health, and the Health Service Executive, and is part of the Government's overall aim to help every child to fulfil his or her full potential. A total of 75 schools, including a representative sample of primary, post-primary and special schools, will take part, and 75 preschools will also participate. The project is taking place in the community healthcare organisation, CHO, 7 region of south-west Dublin, Kildare and west Wicklow. As part of the programme, 19 speech and language therapists and 12 occupational therapists will be recruited by the HSE to work with the 150 schools and preschools.

The purpose of the project is to test a model of tailored therapeutic supports that allow for early intervention in terms of providing speech and language and occupational therapy within educational settings. This innovative pilot will complement existing HSE-funded provision of essential therapy services. The pilot is designed to test the provision of speech and language and occupational therapies in schools settings. It does not, therefore, include applied behaviour analysis, ABA. The Special Education Support Service, which is now part of the NCSE support service, provides training for teachers and schools in a range of programmes, including ABA.

I have to admit that ABA is something that was new to me. As I outlined in my question, I have seen it first-hand in Little Wonders in Castleblayney, which is headed by Claire Callan. I have heard her analysis and background to it. As the Minister knows from his research, it is a scientifically based intervention to increase children's academic, social and communication needs. In the particular case I am speaking about in Castleblayney, families have reported huge improvements in their children's lives and homes and in their behaviour and academic abilities. From my experience of listening to parents who have had children go through an ABA service, they have found it has hugely improved their lives, not only in the family but in the child's capacity to be in school, live at home and interact with other siblings. I ask the Minister to consider ABA as something that should be introduced in primary schools and preschools throughout the country.

The position is as outlined in the very last sentence of the reply. The Department supports the use of ABA and training is provided to teachers in its use. The philosophy of the Department's programme for the education of children with autism is a child-centred approach. It is delivered by special needs assistants and fully qualified professional teachers. They draw from a range of autism-specific interventions. They include ABA but they also include a number of other interventions, such as TEACCH and the picture exchange communication system, as well as the appropriate school curriculum with the option, where possible, of a full or partial integration and interaction with other pupils.

The Department recognises there are a range of interventions that can help a qualified teacher to deliver appropriate education for a child on the autistic spectrum. It continues to be led by a professional teacher. What we are doing, and a later question will also refer to this, is looking at proposals to introduce additional therapies to build the capacity of schools to integrate therapies such as speech and language therapy or occupational therapy into education programmes in the school. This would apply whether it be teaching in the autistic spectrum or teaching in mainstream spectrum. ABA is accommodated, and our autism spectrum disorder units use ABA. The teachers have access to training and support in it. They pick and choose from the model as best suits the child.

I thank the Minister. Do we have figures on how many preschools and primary schools use ABA? I take the Minister's point that perhaps many special education units use it. When it comes to any training such as ABA, early intervention is key. I am trying to see whether the Minister will look further at this with regard to preschools. From speaking to Claire Callan, I understand the younger that children are exposed to ABA services, the greater the impact on and benefit not only to the child but also to the whole family unit and to the child's capacity to be able to socialise with friends and, perhaps, in school. Is this form of special education optional for teachers? Do we have analysis on, or an overall picture of, how ABA is used throughout the country?

From my understanding it is one of a range of interventions, and special schools or special classes will choose from that range. ABA informs all teaching in special schools and classes. Some schools came from a specific ABA background and 13 centres were set up as private ABA pilots. Subsequently they were integrated as special schools within the Department of Education and Skills. They are part of the range of services available. Depending on the teacher and the appropriateness of the intervention, schools draw on different skills and methods. The Department does not say that ABA should be the sole method. It is a range. In years gone by there was quite a controversy, as some people argued that it should have been ABA only. The Department's view is ABA is one of a range of interventions that can be successful. As I understand it, they are applied and they draw on ABA where it is appropriate.

I thank the Minister, Deputies and officials for their co-operation on that question. We will now move back to Deputy Murphy O'Mahony's question.