Louise Ryan from Co. Limerick, a mother of two young boys on the autistic spectrum, talks about her experiences as a parent with the education system and about the importance of knowing your rights in securing supports for your child.

There seems to be an unwritten rule in schools that when a child reaches Fourth Class they no longer need access to the SNA that they have often had since junior infants. The reason given is that there will be no SNA available in secondary school and that students need to learn to manage without one. It’s also down to the fact that younger students enter the school, often needing SNA access, but the allocation to the school is not increased and the younger students take precedence.

This exact situation is what preceded my son being excluded from school in September of Fourth Class. Before starting, he had four hours of SNA access daily; when he went in, unbeknownst to me, this access was decreased to just two hours a day. Not only that, but the person who would be his SNA was changed for the third year in a row. This meant that my son couldn’t have sensory breaks when he needed and his frustration built up to the point that he hit another classmate.

Subsequently, I was asked to voluntary remove him from school for two weeks to defuse the situation. I made an appointment with the psychiatrist; he’s been on ADHD medication since he was six, and I thought that I’d play it safe, checking out whether it was related. I was stunned when she diagnosed him with clinical depression. I even took him to A&E; his behaviour was so out of character that I was concerned that there may be a neurological event at the root of his outburst. That, at least, would have been a concrete explanation.

What I wasn’t aware of at the time was that the school had no intention of him returning after the two weeks were up. I was utterly aghast when I received a letter from the school’s Board of Management recommending that, for the health and safety of the other pupils, I should consider removing him from the school and place him in a special school.

They couldn’t expel him without another placement organised, but if I took him out voluntarily, then he’d not only risk not getting a place in any other school but he’d also lose his entitlement to home tuition whilst he was out of the system. On top of that, I’d have the Education Welfare Officer knocking on my door wanting to know why I wasn’t sending him to school after twenty days.

Considering the options, I decided to make a stand and fight.

You can only do so if you know you’re in the right. I was lucky that I’d just started my PME in Education and one of the key readings was the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act, 2004. The relevant part of this stated that a placement could only be deemed unsuitable if, with all available resources in place, a student is not learning or is affecting others learning. All available resources were not in place for my son and this was the issue that allowed him to return to school in October. Initially, it was only two hours per day, since that was how long he had access to an SNA at the time and remained this way for a further two months.

Throughout this period, I was in regular contact with the SENO about allocating a full-time SNA to allow him to return to school. At one point, I was asked what would I do if the SNA was granted. I’d nothing to lose at this stage, so I replied that he was entitled to it, it was what he needed to return to school and if it wasn’t provided, then I’d be taking legal action. Two days later, his SNA was approved.

This didn’t end his time out of school, however. A suitable SNA needed to be found and once that happened, each week an extra thirty minutes was added on to his school day. He returned to school full days in the middle of February, five months after he was excluded.

Did I make the right decision to fight for his place? Yes, I did. He’s now in Sixth Class in the same school and they could not be any more amazing with him. He’s now looking forward to attending a mainstream secondary school, where he’ll likely need a full-time SNA for the rest of his school years and probably a reduced curriculum to cope, but he’ll get there and I’m ready to fight any fights along the way for him.

What you can do in this situation:

Ask the school to confirm in writing each year what access your child has to an SNA and/or Resource Hours. If this changes from year to year ask why. It is also worth asking who your child’s SNA will be each year. It may not be the same person each year.

Know the law surrounding school exclusion. If you were a doctor you would keep up to date on the latest in medicine. As a parent of a child with special needs in education it is really important to know your child’s rights and know what the law is in this area. All policy documents including the EPSEN Act are available on the NCSE website.

Keep calm. I know it is difficult to do so at times but a level head and a rational argument will achieve more than shouting and accusations every time.

Take your time with decisions. It’s important not to make snap decisions on the spur of the moment that you may later regret and that may affect your child’s education.

This is one individual’s opinion and experience. It does not necessarily reflect AsIAm’s views and positions as an organisation. If you’d like to blog for AsIAm.ie, get in touch by emailing gaibhin@asiam.ie.

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