Autistic families concerned about the return to school, survey finds

Autistic families concerned about the return to school, survey finds

  • 77% of families feel their child returning to school will need more support, but less than half believe they will receive it


  • Face masks and social distancing a major challenge for autistic students


  • Most autistic students experiencing anxiety about the return to school 

Sunday August 16th: Parents of autistic children due to return to school in September have serious concerns about whether there will be sufficient supports available to them, according to a survey of 1186 parents conducted by AsIAm, Ireland’s National Autism Charity.

Parents surveyed reported that many young people had found managing stress levels and engaging in learning very difficult since schools closed in March.

“When they return to school they will need the support of SNAs, and in some cases additional teaching hours and special autism classes”, according to Adam Harris, the founder and CEO of AsIAm.  “Many autistic children will have their needs increase by new safety regulations, and with resources under unprecedented pressure, it is vital that the Department of Education recognises this.”

1 in 65 children in school have a diagnosis of autism. The majority of these students attend mainstream school whilst significant numbers attend special classes within mainstream schools and special schools. Students on the spectrum often thrive on structure and routine and the loss of this, together with school-based support, has had a significant consequence.

Parents reported that:

  • 32% have not engaged in learning since lockdown began
  • 53% did not avail of the Summer Provision Programme (which provides in-school or home-based tuition for 40 hours during the Summer)
  • 42% did not receive support from school during the lockdown
  • 68% are anxious about the return to school
  • 68% have experienced a greater number of overloads and meltdowns during the crisis

According to Adam Harris: “Autistic young people work incredibly hard every day to manage a world which in very many ways was not built with them in mind. For most autistic children, the bulk of support they get from the State comes through the education system in the form of access to additional resources such as a SNA or a place in a special class. The closure of schools has meant that children have lost that support when they need it the most.

“Our concern is that schools are already very stretched by the need to devote resources to dealing with Covid 19. It is essential that every support possible is provided to ensure a positive return to the classroom for all our young people”.

The survey results demonstrate that many families are concerned about the support which will be available to their child on the return to school and that many families are still unsure of what support, if any, will be available to them:

  • 77% say their child will require more support than last year
  • 72% reported a need for access to additional teaching time
  • 60% reported a need to access a Special Needs Assistant (SNA)
  • 30% of those in mainstream attend a special class
  • 61% did not believe their child would get the support they need

“Both schools and families have expressed concern about the lack of clarity around how students with additional needs will be effectively supported this year, in the context of COVID-19 restrictions and whether sufficient resources have been made available to meet these needs. Students may become more overwhelmed, experience increased anxiety or be confused or distressed by aspects of the “new normal” such as social distancing and face coverings. It is vital that students are provided with the support they need at this time and that no expense is spared in this regard” Mr Harris continued

Autistic students traditionally leave the classroom at certain times of the day to access additional one-to-one or small group teaching, integrate from their special class into a mainstream class as often as is manageable for the young person and access movement breaks as required. However, it is unclear how or if these options will be available in each school this year. Furthermore, autistic people can find personal space difficult to maintain and are exempt under the regulations from wearing face coverings if they cause distress but it is unclear how this will be managed in school settings. Parents have expressed concerns in this regard with:

  • 49% reporting that their child does not understand social distancing
  • 21% of children are afraid of people wearing face coverings
  • 39% cannot wear a face covering whilst 45% can only do so with discomfort
  • 78% are concerned that their child who attends an autism class will not be included in mainstream learning opportunities this year.

“We must ensure that the rights of autistic students to be integrated and included are upheld at all costs. This involves ensuring schools have protocols to ensure that children who may need support or reasonable accommodations around COVID-19 guidelines are provided for and additional staffing in school to allow for this. The return to school is a vital lifeline to children and families who were left behind in recent months – we must do everything we can to preserve and maximise it in the safest way possible” Mr Harris concluded

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