Mainstream classes aren’t always the best setting for autistic students. Special classes or special school, depending on the person’s needs, might be more suitable for providing the necessary level of support required.
Alternatively, some students may be able to attend an autism class within a mainstream school. This allows them to integrate into a mainstream school community, participate as far as possible in the curriculum, along with additional supports in the areas they might struggle with.
In this section, we will go through what special educational support entails, its different forms, how to access it and the different contacts to reach out to when in need.
Accessing Special Education Services
Who is entitled to them?
Every child in Ireland has a constitutional right to a free primary education. Children with special education needs are provided for a free education until the age of 18 years.
Whilst there’s no specific reference to autism itself within the Constitution, or in any existing legislation providing for education, the nature of autistic people’s requirements fall under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (EPSEN) 2004‘s definition of “special educational needs” as;
“. . . a restriction in the capacity of the person to participate in and benefit from education on account of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability, or any other condition which results in a person learning differently from a person without that condition and cognate words shall be construed accordingly.”
The Act provides for children living with these needs to be educated within “an inclusive environment,” whether alongside other children who possess similar learning difficulties of their own, or with those who do not.
How do I know what I need?
Part of the wider Assessment of Needs for people with disabilities involves the drafting of a Service Statement, which will set out what recommended supports be put in place for the person in question and their practicality.
Since autism affects everyone differently, these will vary from person to person, with some individuals requiring more intensive help than others. If you already have a medical diagnosis of autism and a Service Statement, then you usually won’t need to undertake a separate assessment from your school.
Service Statements may be amended pending a change in circumstances or appealed at any time. You can do either by getting in touch with your GP, social worker or Liaison Officer at your Local Health Office.
If you have neither a diagnosis nor a Services Statement, then you should ask your family doctor or school’s educational psychologist to refer you on to a specialist team, who will carry out a diagnostic examination. Alternatively, the EPSEN Act entitles you and your family to request the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), through your school, to undertake its own assessment.
A multidisciplinary team, usually made up of a psychologist, medical practitioner, school principal or SENO, qualified social worker and an appropriate therapist, will take several factors into account. These include academic performance, behaviour in class and interactions with teachers and peers.
How do I enroll?
Enrolling in a special school is similar to enrolling in a mainstream one. Autistic children may begin school slightly earlier than their neurotypical peers through the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme. They must have begun their formal education, however, by six years of age at the very latest.
It is advisable that you research if there are any special schools close to where you live. Read up on them, their ethos, what supports they can provide and if they have any places available. Organising a visit to the school and a meeting with its principal is also recommended. It is crucial that you have as much information as possible about your chosen school before signing off on any applications or any other paperwork. Securing places can be very tight so it’s a good idea to have a list of different choices that you might want your child to attend.
A form notifying that you wish to enrol in a special school must be completed and sent to your local NSCE Special Educational Needs Organiser (SENO), which can be downloaded here.
What kind of supports do they provide?
Special schools provide individualised education for their pupils, directly addressing specific needs and challenges. Class sizes are usually small because of this and allows teachers and special needs assistants to work a lot more intensively with their students to meet their educational requirements.
Where autistic pupils are concerned, typical methods of supports within special schools usually include:
• Access to Assistive Technology;
• Learning support and study skills tuition;
• Different therapies alongside IEPs, and;
• In-school peer groups and after-school activities.
Special schools will also have other facilities for pupils with special needs, such as soft play areas, sensory rooms, or swimming pools, which are necessary for treating students with certain conditions. Not all special schools will have each of these facilities onsite, so it’s advisable that you research which one in your local area best suits you and organise a visit to have a look around.
You may also be able to avail of the Department of Education and Skills’ School Transport Scheme. Travelling, especially by public transport, can be one of the hardest challenges autistic people face in their daily lives. The Scheme exempts children with recognised special needs from the usual charges and facilitates an autism-friendly setting for using school transport.
Journeys to and from school, as well as their timetables, are ran by Bus Éireann. Any school recognised by the Department of Education and Skills may participate in the Scheme, be the mainstream or special sector.
You can read more information about the Scheme and access a downloadable application form here.
How are their lessons and schooldays structured?
Special schools in Ireland follow their own curriculum for primary education as set by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
There is no set curriculum for post-primary education at present within Irish special schools. Many that cater for post-primary pupils will offer different educational plans, ranging from a continuation of what was being taught at primary level, learning for life and work skills, to a more structured and subject-based curriculum. Options include:
Not every special school will offer each of these. Different schools will have different focuses in their educational ethos and will reflect that in their content. When selecting your school, therefore, it’s important that your family are abreast of your IEP to make an informed choice about which option would be best suited for your needs.
Can you transfer to a mainstream class or school?
You can make the transition from a special school to the mainstream sector, or vice versa, at any point.
Every child has different needs and different paces of how the learn. Autism is no different and diversely affects everyone living with the condition. You might feel that a mainstream school would be a more appropriate setting to develop your learning and social skills; or, conversely, a mainstream environment may be too stressful to cope with and isn’t helping at all with either education or socialising.
Whatever your reason might be, it’s something you need to talk about with your parents and teachers. Before you make any firm decisions, actively consult with your education and health professionals and listen to whether they’re of the opinion that your needs would be better met in different learning environment. Ask them if there are any other options that your present school could look at adopting or retrying, or if you can get an assessment from your educational psychologist. Switching schools isn’t something should be done lightly and is recommended that you only do so if you’ve no other recourse or you’ve been explicitly advised to do so.
Guidelines and advice from the NCSE about transitioning between special and mainstream schools can be viewed here.
What kind of supports do they provide?
Autism Classes are groups attached to mainstream classrooms which specifically cater for pupils attending schools with a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum.
One main advantage of these classes is that, unlike mainstream school classrooms, they have a much lower pupil-teacher ratio and may also receive a ‘baseline’ level of SNA support. This ensures that there’s as much intensive support as possible for pupils to develop and fulfil their IEPs. Additionally, special classes provide the opportunity for students to follow the curriculum at pace and level appropriate to them and to participate in mainstream activities and classes where they are able.
Does every school have an autism class?
Autism classes are typically attached to special schools throughout the country, but many mainstream schools also provide for these classes at primary and secondary level. The education plans of those within a mainstream setting may differ from those in special schools, depending on your needs as a student and an individual.
If you wish to attend a mainstream school, make sure that you do your research and know if your chosen school has autism classes and whether their education plan suits your needs. Not every school will have the same ethos, nor offer the same kinds of services.
For a full list of mainstream schools with special classes, click here.
Which staff are involved with autism classes?
Resource teachers (known also as special education teachers) are responsible for designing and implementing instruction within special classes. SNAs will usually help coordinate the day-to-day running of lesson plans and delivering pupils’ IEPs.
Autistic students attending these classes may also need additional supports, including, but not limited to, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, learning for life and work, and travel training. In these instances, relevant professionals may be outsourced by the school to provide the necessary service(s).
In the event of psychiatric care or a reassessment of needs, a NEPS educational psychologist will usually be called in.
The amount of resource teachers and SNAs within each school will depend on demand and how many pupils attend a specific school. You can view the precise figures on the NCSE’s website.
Citizens Information’s section on special needs education
Department of Education and Skills’ section on special needs education
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)’s guidelines for teachers of students with learning disabilities