A child locked in a withdrawal room. A member of staff this the photo of the child attempting to dismantle the light after being locked in the room for several hours. (Image supplied to TheJournal.ie by the child’s parent)
AUTISTIC CHILDREN AS young as eight-years-old are being locked in so-called ‘withdrawal rooms’ for hours without supervision, TheJournal.ie revealed this morning.
Parents have blamed insufficient training for teachers and a lack of cohesive national regulation for the incidents.
The rooms, present in some schools in Ireland which have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder unit, are intended for brief use as a last resort when a child with autism is having a meltdown, and is at risk of injuring themselves or others.
Withdrawal rooms, sometimes referred to as isolation, seclusion, or quiet rooms, may contain padding to protect the child from injury, but others are left bare. A small observation window is required.
However, guidelines for their use are set by the Board of Management of individual schools, rather than at national level, which may have contributed to their misuse.
The rooms have been banned in some parts of the United States, and now parents in Ireland want a similar move here.
The Canadian province of British Columbia is considering an outright ban on the use of the rooms, following the publication of a survey which raised concerns that they may be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Three days in a row
In one case, which TheJournal.ie understands to be the subject of an investigation by the Child and Family Agency, an 11-year-old child with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was locked into a ‘withdrawal room’ three days in a row, for hours at a time during a week in January of last year.
The child was first locked into the room, a 1.8 by 2.5 metre converted bathroom, for an hour and a half for becoming agitated after falling behind on classwork.
This had become a regular occurrence since the child lost their Special Need Assistant in September 2013.
The following two days, they were locked into the room for five hours each day, leaving the child in an extremely distressed state.
Out of frustration caused by being forced into the room, the child attempted to smash through the room’s only window. When one of the child’s parent arrived to the school, the child was found still locked in the room, surrounded by broken glass and bleeding from the feet, as his shoes had been removed.
The image above, taken by a member of staff at the school on one of these occasions, shows the child attempting to dismantle the light fixing at the top of the room after being kept in the room for five hours.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, the parent described the school’s use of the room as “barbaric”, and that her child has been left traumatised by the incident, with the effects still felt almost a year later:
It wasn’t until November that my child laughed again. They don’t trust strangers any more, and assumes all teachers will treat them like before.
A spokesperson for the Child and Family Agency said they do not comment on individual cases, but that “if there are concerns regarding a child, these should be brought to the attention of the nearest Social Work Dept for investigation and follow up when necessary”.
An eight-year-old child in a separate school was found by its parents – at the end of the school day – screaming after being kept in a withdrawal room for an extended period of time.
A third school with access to a withdrawal room is understood to have rarely used it. On two occasions that it was needed, the child was taken out of the room after a maximum of 15 minutes.
Fearing for their childrens’ safety, a group of concerned parents are petitioning the Department of Education to ban the use of the rooms.
The petition, launched by Parents Against Isolation Rooms Ireland, is close to its aim of 2,500 signatures.
Spokesperson for the group, Niamh Deane, says that they want to see the use of these rooms banned completely.
“Children can see these rooms as a punishment,” she said, “and it can have a lasting psychological effect on them.”
“I’ve been contacted by dozens of families who are frightened by them. They are also frightened by what other methods of restraint are being used by teachers to calm down their children.”
She said that children are at risk due to a lack of training that teachers receive, not only in the use of withdrawal rooms but in other situations too.
Deane is in the process of setting up a registered charity, Tabor Children’s Trust, with the aim of opening a small Montessori primary school in September 2014 for children aged from 3 to 12 years old with learning difficulties.
The school, which will require €150,000 in funding, would cater for 6 children in each classroom, with one fully trained Montessori teacher and one to two support staff, varying on the children’s needs.
“Small safe space”
Withdrawal rooms are described by the Department of Education as a “Small Safe Space”, with funding provided for their construction, and designed for use in a different manner to sensory rooms, which are designed to calm the child under supervision rather than contain the child during a meltdown.
In a School Design Guide, published by the Department, the intended use of a withdrawal room is as “a safe area that a pupil, under the supervision of a staff member, can access for a short period of time”, and in line with “a clearly documented staged approach to the management of pupils’ behaviour”.
An observation window is required.
However, there are no national guidelines in place for the use of these rooms and schools do not have to report on how often or for what reasons they are used.
“Each school is required to prepare their own code of behaviour in accordance with Section 23 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000″, the Department said in a statement.
Codes of Behaviour
“To assist schools in formulating a code of behaviour, the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) has developed guidelines for schools on Codes of Behaviour.”
However, situations where “specialised behaviour management strategies, such as the use of restraint” are needed are described in the report as “outside the scope of these Guidelines”.
Dr Joseph R McAllister Jr, an award-winning expert in the area of autism who is based in Pennsylvania in the United States, told TheJournal.ie that they are generally considered to be used a last resort, and for only a brief period of time.
“When it is used, it should be used briefly. The theme should be looking to get an individual out of there as soon as it is no longer necessary”, he said, and that training should focus on preventative measures to stop the situation from escalating.
The use of the rooms is “highly regulated” in the United States, he added.
He added that young children experiencing a meltdown do have the potential to cause injury.
This website is currently awaiting a response from the Department of Education as to whether or not the government intends to draw up a set of national guidelines. It is understood that such guidelines are planned for 2015.
The identity of the child pictured, their parents, and the school involved are known to TheJournal.ie.
First published at 6.30am, 13th of January 2013. The image’s caption now clarifies that it was taken by a member of staff at the school.