“The checkbook must be open for this to happen”


Months of school closures. Limited access to distance learning. A sudden stop of vital therapeutic interventions. The true scale of learning loss for children due to the disruption of Covid-19 is one to guess. However, most experts agree that those who have lost the most are young people with special or additional needs.

Leading autism activist Adam Harris said there was an urgent need to conduct a long-term study on the effects of Covid school closings on children with special educational needs.

Harris says the National Council for Special Education should conduct a longitudinal project of at least five years to analyze the impact. The CEO of autism charity AsIAm said: “The education system failed many of those who needed the most support for most of a 12 month period.

“We need a long-term study to see how this has influenced children. The Ministry of Education should call on relevant expertise to design a longitudinal study that will effectively measure outcomes and impacts.
In the meantime, experts agree that remedial programs of some sort are crucial.

Harris and other disability activists are lobbying the Department of Education to expand this year’s summer offer program for students with special educational needs (SEN), including increasing the hours available for students. young people and ensuring that as many children as possible can access educational support at school, as opposed to at home. In a typical year, up to 70% of participants cannot benefit from tutoring and have to find their own tutor, which can be difficult.

The extended school year for children with additional needs usually takes place in July, but for 2021 is expected to be extended until August, he says, to make up for lost school time.

Often conducted individually at home with a tutor, he would like to see more schools enrolling, as a group school setting would strengthen social and communication skills.

“It must be as wide as possible. Schools should be encouraged to keep it there. The focus of the program this year should be social connectivity. The checkbook must be open for this to happen.

Distance learning did not respect the constitutional right to education of people with additional needs

Harris, 25, has been a key figure in making special education during the pandemic a national issue – highlighting how Ireland was the only country in Europe not to keep classes open on lockdown, and explaining how distance learning did not fulfill the constitutional right to education of those with additional needs.

The young activist from Wicklow – brother of Higher Education Minister Simon Harris – was a vocal critic of the Education Department for recoiling from pressure from teachers’ unions who resisted the reopening of SEN schools.

Investments are needed in the aftermath of this tumultuous year, he firmly believes.
“We know that the needs of children have increased massively; this has been widely recognized, including by the government. If you really believe in it, you have to invest in it and accept that there is a cost associated with it. The needs of many children with additional needs are much greater than they were before the pandemic and therefore we should see an associated increase in the ANS and additional teaching time allowances. “

At the heart of her campaign work is her own positive educational experience as a person with autism. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at an early age, he knows how vital school is for children with ASD to reach their potential.

He spent three years at Ballyowen Meadows Special School in Stillorgan, Dublin, before moving to St Patrick’s National School in his hometown of Greystones, County Wicklow.

“Choosing where to send me to a special school was a difficult decision for my parents. [Bart and Mary]. But what was the choice? Go to the general public and be seen as the daring boy who can’t sit in his chair?

“Back then, there was very little knowledge or support in the system, compared to today. I took advantage of my time at the special school; and it allowed me to go to St Patrick. My mother wanted me to go to the general public. The most important thing about a school is the people who make it up and the culture that is there.

“This is not a policy document, it is a global perspective. It’s a school that focuses on what you’re good at.

He remains close to Jennifer, his Special Needs Assistant (SNA) for five years at St Patrick’s. “She was a game changer. She was really good at reading me, knowing how to avoid a fit.

He struggled halfway through high school, when the social divide widened in grade three.

“It was difficult – I call it the Travelator effect. Everyone calmly walked on the Travelator and I was running on the hard ground to follow.
The transition year was “a turning point” when a structured program focused on special interests suited him.

Special education is “a problem that matters a lot to me, personally,” he explains. “The opportunities I had 20 years later are still denied to other young people with autism. I feel compelled to pay for that.”

He said the recent revelations by RTÉ Investigates about the Ministry of Health’s secret files on autistic children “shook everyone’s back.”

“The response from the Department of Health to date has been: there was nothing wrong with what happened. This reflects the culture of “protecting the system rather than defending the rights of the vulnerable”. We have to go beyond evil as just being a legal concept – it is also a moral concept. Families should never have had to go to court in the first place.

“You shouldn’t have to advocate for constitutional rights. Our starting point should be: how can we meet the needs of children? In family law, there is a mediation process, where everyone has to sit down and come to a resolution. Why should the state not do the same? We cannot have a system that does not put children at the center ”.

To this end, Harris is pushing for the updating and implementation of the Epsen (Education for People with Special Educational Needs) Act which was passed 17 years ago to secure the rights of students with special needs. additional, but which was never fully implemented.

“We also need to look at the Education Law of 1998, which is now over 20 years old. This means that the Department of Education is not providing education, it is providing education. I think it’s worrying; from the point of view of access to essential services, the ministry does not have control and is not able to deliver, even when the political will is there, even when rights are at stake. no solid accountability at any level and this is an area we desperately need to look into.

He believes there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic which has seen “immense suffering” among people with autism, such as the inability to provide school education to many students with additional needs for the most part. lock.

“Studies have shown that 61 percent of children on the autism spectrum have lost key abilities to cope, self-regulate and manage. I spoke to parents whose children had drastic difficulties interacting with other people, lacking the day-to-day experience. Some have become extremely distressed; often injure themselves or others in the home. Some have lost the ability to engage in personal hygiene on a daily basis.
“These are also public health data; that has an impact on the well-being of children and families, as well as the future prospects of children.


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