There are both specialised and mainstream supports available for children with disabilities, including autism. Mainstream preschools receive support from my Department, while both the Department of Education and Skills and the HSE continue to support some specialist early intervention classes and pre-schools, which in many cases provide placements for children with ASD. Contact should be made with the local children’s disability service for further information. In addition, the National Council for Special Education team of locally based Special Education Needs Organisers (SENOs) are available to assist parents to identify appropriate educational placements for children with special educational needs and to discuss their child's special educational needs. The local SENO contact details are available on www.ncse.ie.
Many children with disabilities, including autism, take part in mainstream early learning and care services. Participation of children with disabilities in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) universal pre-school programme in mainstream preschool settings is supported by the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM). The key objective of AIM is to support early learning and care providers to deliver an inclusive preschool experience, ensuring that children with a disability can fully participate in the ECCE Programme, thereby reaping the benefits of quality preschool education.
AIM has seven levels of progressive support, moving from universal to targeted, based on the needs of the child and the early learning and care setting they are attending. The seven levels include the following:
Level 1: An Inclusive Culture
This level recognises that a strong culture of inclusion must be fostered and embedded to support all children’s maximum participation in the ECCE Programme.
- An Inclusion Charter for the Early Years Sector and updated Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Guidelines have been published and a national training programme on the Guidelines is being rolled out.
- A higher education programme in Leadership for INClusion in Early Years Settings (LINC) was established in 2016 with provision for 900 students annually for four years, who when qualified may be employed as Inclusion Coordinator in a mainstream preschool setting.
- AIM Inclusive Play (AIP) packs were developed for preschool settings and included toys and materials to encourage coordination and audio, visual and tactile skills for all children. 6,500 AIP packs were delivered to preschool settings delivering the ECCE programme.
Level 3: A Qualified and Confident Workforce
This level, in recognising the requirement to continue to develop a qualified workforce that can confidently meet the needs of all children wishing to participate in the ECCE Programme, provides for a multi-annual training programme for preschool practitioners.
Where an ELC provider, in conjunction with a parent, considers that they may need some additional support in order to meet the needs of a child with a disability in an inclusive way, they can apply for a suite of more targeted supports, namely:
Level 4: Expert Early Years Educational Advice and Support
This level provides access to mentoring for preschool practitioners from a team of dedicated AIM Early Years Specialists. To avail of this support, preschool providers and parents are requested to complete an online Access and Inclusion Profile. This looks at the strengths, abilities and needs of the child, as well as the strengths and needs of the preschool setting.
Level 5: Equipment, Appliances and Minor Alterations Capital Grants
This level provides for access to specialised equipment, appliances, assistive technology and/or minor alterations capital grants for ELC settings to ensure children with a disability can participate in the ECCE programme. A short report from a designated professional is required confirming that the specialised equipment or minor building alterations are necessary.
Level 6: Therapeutic Intervention
AIM Level 6 provides access to therapeutic services where they are critical to enable the child to be enrolled and to meaningfully participate in the ECCE Programme. To avail of this support, the preschool provider, in conjunction with the parent, must complete the online Access and Inclusion Profile. The HSE decides on the appropriate Level 6 therapeutic supports needed by the child in the preschool setting.
Level 7: Additional Assistance in the Preschool Room
This level provides additional assistance in the preschool room where this is critical to ensuring a child’s participation in the ECCE Programme. AIM provides financial support to the preschool provider where needed, which can be used either to reduce the adult to child ratio in the preschool room or to buy in additional assistance to the preschool room. Level 7 assistance is a shared resource for the preschool setting.
Children can be registered on the ECCE Programme (free pre-school) if they are over 2 years and 8 months before 1st September. The ECCE Programme is available to each child for two pre-school years, provided the child is not older than 5½ years at the end of the pre-school year.
Since its introduction in 2016, AIM has provided over 12,100 children with disabilities with over 26,800 targeted supports across over 3,300 preschools. Thousands more preschool children are benefitting from the universal supports provided under AIM. I have recently announced an additional €10 million in funding for the AIM initiative in Budget 2020.
As AIM is available nationwide all mainstream providers in the Limerick area that are taking part in the ECCE Programme can avail of AIM supports. The Limerick County Childcare Committee can provide information on ECCE providers locally. Limerick County Childcare Committee can be contacted at 061 600918, http://www.limerickchildcare.ie/