I propose to take Questions Nos. 159 to 161, inclusive, 163 and 164 together.
I previously outlined for the Deputy how my Department's policy is to promote a child-centred approach to the education of children with special education including autism. The document referred to by the Deputy is outdated in that it refers to specific models of provision. My Department's policy is to provide for children with special educational needs, including autism, to be included in mainstream schools unless such a placement would not be in their best interests or the interests of the children with whom they are to be educated. Some children may be supported in a special class attached to a mainstream school. These students have the option, where appropriate, of full/partial integration and interaction with other pupils.
Other children may have such complex needs that they are best placed in a special school. Students with special educational needs have access to a range of support services including additional teaching and/or care supports. In special schools and special classes, students are supported through lower pupil teacher ratios. Special needs assistants may also be recruited specifically where pupils with disabilities and significant care needs are enrolled. I wish to advise the Deputy that my Department provides for a comprehensive system of continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers in the area of special educational needs including teachers of children with autism. Central to this is the Special Education Support Service (SESS) which was established in September 2003. The brief of the SESS is to enhance the quality of learning and teaching of students with special educational needs through the provision of CPD and support for teachers in mainstream schools, primary and post-primary special schools, and special classes.
My Department's position is that as each child with autism is unique, they should have access to a range of different approaches to meet their individual needs. Applied Behavioural Analysis, or ABA, is one of the approaches used in special classes for children with autism. The use of ABA as part of the range of interventions is particularly useful for addressing behavioural issues. My Department supports the use of ABA and training is provided for teachers in its use. However, the Department does not accept, based on research, advice and best practice, that ABA should be the only approach used. While ABA helps to improve behaviour, other approaches such as the Treatment and Education of Autistic Communication Handicapped Children approach and the Picture Exchange Communications System are just as important in developing children's communication and speech skills. It is important that children have access to a range of approaches so that their broader needs can be met. As children differ significantly from one another and as children's needs vary and change over time, it is not possible to impose a method or approach that will work for all children with autism.
This child-centred approach is based on advice received from international experts on autism, NEPS, the Inspectorate and the report of the Irish Task Force on Autism. I have not personally read the research to which the Deputy refers. However, the National Council for Special Education's 2009 publication "International Review of the Literature of Evidence of Best Practice Provision in the Education of Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder" makes reference to both experts referred to by the Deputy. The Deputy will be aware that the NCSE is currently developing policy advice on the educational provision for children with autism which is being prepared at my request. The SESS has a number of teams involved in the provision of CPD and support to teachers of students with challenging behaviour; the Challenging Behaviour Team, the Autism Team and the Contemporary Applied Behaviour Analysis Team. One full-time SESS team member holds a BCBA qualification with three others currently having post-graduate qualifications in this area.
As outlined in my previous response, it is a matter for schools to determine the approach or mix of approaches which they will use in each individual case. In accordance with the provisions of the Education Act 1998, the Board of Management is the body charged with the direct governance of a school. In general, the Board has the responsibility to ensure that the school operates efficiently and effectively. However, it is the Class Teacher and, to a lesser extent, the Principal, who interact with the children on a daily basis. The approach towards each child's education would be based on the individual educational needs of the child and would have regard to the child's individual education plan and supporting professional reports, etc. and would require the interaction of all school personnel involved in the provision of education to the child. Details on the numbers of early intervention classes for children with autism who use ABA are not available as this information, while available in individual schools, has not been collated by my Department.