AsIAm Founder and CEO Adam Harris called on the Department of Education to deliver training to teachers and schools across the country for their autistic pupils. 

Speaking before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills on Wednesday, Mr Harris made a series of five recommendations, stressing the need for building inclusive learning settings for autistic pupils already working to adapt to challenging environments.

Full remarks may be read below.

“I wish to thank the Chairperson, Deputy Fiona O’Loughlin, and members for inviting us to engage with your important discussion. I also want to thank the Committee Clerk, Mr Alan Guidon, for his courtesy in assisting us in participating in the process

“My name is Adam Harris and I am the Founder and CEO of AsIAm, an organisation working to build a more inclusive Ireland for autistic people. I founded the organisation based on my own experiences growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. I spent the first 3 years of my education in a special school, largely because when I was younger autism classes were not widely available. As a result, my parents had to decide between sending me to a special school far away from my home and without the opportunity of engaging in the mainstream curriculum or to a mainstream school which would not have the resources and knowledge to recognise or support my needs. For that reason, I am passionate about ensuring every student who can access mainstream education, with the help and support of an autism class, has the opportunity to do so.

“As an organisation, AsIAm firmly believes that many of the barriers autistic people face in life come from how the world operates. On a daily basis autistic people face access barriers in terms of communication, sensory processing, predictability and, sadly, the judgement and attitude of other people. In recent years, Ireland has become a much more “autism aware” country and by this I mean most people can now point to someone they know who is on the autism spectrum or, if not, can cite numerous examples of autism in popular media and culture. This is likely due to the fact that in recent years we have seen an important shift towards mainstreaming autistic people in school and the wider community. Indeed, according to the National Council for Special Education, 1 in 65 students (or 1.55%) in our schools system has an autism diagnosis and 86% of autistic students now attend mainstream school. However it is important we do not confuse “awareness” with “understanding”. There remains a real lack of knowledge on how to support and include autistic people in all aspects of the community. School communities are not immune to this reality – many autistic people now attend schools which have no formal training in how to support or meet our needs. Often the way school is structured, the environment it takes place in and the social aspects of school life are not only not designed for autistic people but can be quite overwhelming and stressful, with dire consequences such as school refusal, bullying or mental health challenges.

Everyday autistic people work to adapt to these challenging environments and that is why it is so important that the neurotypical or non-autistic world meets our community half-way. That is why a well-resourced autism class, taught by a suitably skilled and qualified teacher, can play a vital role in ensuring so many autistic students can reach their personal potential and thrive.”

“I want to recognise the extraordinary work done by so many principals, teachers, SNAs and wider school communities in creating inclusive educational environments for autistic students. Indeed, I was fortunate to attend two extremely inclusive mainstream schools myself. However the challenge is to ensure this is a universal experience. Whilst we can currently cite a long list of schools who have opened autism classes and work hard every day to be inclusive. We shouldn’t have to – it shouldn’t be something we need to praise. As really it is the most basic vindication of a child’s right to education. Presently, some schools have stepped forward both in terms of providing autism classes but also changing their wider school culture for autistic students who are in mainstream class. Others though have chosen to step back. To erect soft barriers or simply to opt-out. This isn’t acceptable and it undermines the entire basis of mainstreaming – creating the “special” mainstream school in a community as opposed to the universal inclusion envisioned in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

“To that end, I would ask the Committee to consider the following recommendations in its deliberations on this matter:

Recommendation 1: Inclusion should not be optional

“Naturally, we want schools to want to open autism classes. We believe opening an autism class not only benefits the autism community but actually enriches a school community – bringing students who think and do in a different way to others. Many schools do choose to open classes but when no school in a local community is willing to or when a number of families wish to access a particular school, based on family tradition or preference, that a school should be obliged to meet the accessibility need (in this case an autism class) of that student. We believe autistic students should face only the same enrolment processes as neurotypical students, for this to be reality it will require the provision of autism classes as some in our community simply will not manage school without accessing one.

Recommendation 2: We need to support school communities in changing their culture

“Often we open autism classes or have autistic students in a school population but never explore this aspect of diversity with the wider school community. Often we create stigma by not discussing it or by using offensive terms such as “unit” to refer to an autism class. We believe it is important to educate other students, parents and staff about this aspect of diversity. AsIAm provides workshops to students in second level and our experience is that when students are equipped with the knowledge of how they can include they warmly welcome and respond to it.

Recommendation 3: Quality is as important as quantity

“Presently there is a wide variance in terms of the quality of autism classes. Some are staffed by experienced personnel with advanced qualifications in autism. Others are staffed by those with little or no knowledge. Some school communities have worked to improve the sensory environment or educate their wider school, others have not. Some schools have ensured their policies as inclusive of autism by differentiating autistic behaviour and negative behaviour or ensuring autistic people can get the support that they need, others have policies which immediately create barriers to success. We believe there should be national standards for autism classes which help school communities to support their autistic students. AsIAm is proud to be working with the Joint Managerial Body, who we have found to be so committed to improving opportunity and outcomes for autistic students, to develop a resource for school to understand autism-friendly practises and reflect on their own practises. We look forward to jointly launching this exciting initiative later this year.

Recommendation 4: Mandatory training for all teachers and SNAs

“We believe that all teachers and SNAs assigned to an autism class should receive appropriate training prior to taking up their position. Whilst this may seem obvious, it is nowhere near the reality today. Many staff do not access any training or are not able to access the courses they require until they take up their post. This is dangerous and puts autistic students at risk.

“We also believe that all teachers should receive a baseline level of training on autism as part of Initial Teacher Education and that staff working in schools which have autism classes, whose aim should be to include autistic students in so far as possible in all aspects of school life, should be prioritised for mandatory training.

Recommendation 5: We ensure that the right supports are in place, sensitive to the needs of individual students

“Every autistic student is different. The needs of every student will be totally different as a result. Some of the supports autistic students require may need input, training or therapeutic support from qualified clinical professionals such as Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Therapists or Psychologists. It is important that this expertise is mainstreamed into an education system working to mainstream autistic students. We welcome recent developments and policy proposals such as the In-School Therapy Service Pilot.

“It is important that all supports provided to students, particularly at 2nd level, are sensitive to the wishes of the individual student and do not stigmatise or make the student feel uncomfortable. It is also important that support is based on the individual needs of the student not the resource capacity of a school or the fact that a student appears quiet and cooperative, but may be struggling to cope with school beneath the surface.

“In conclusion, many schools have taken important steps to meaningfully include autistic students but this is far from universal. We must work to ensure that every school plays its part in meeting the needs of autistic students in a high-quality manner.”