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Column: Misuse of isolation rooms shows how badly we're failing autistic children

With class sizes increasing and support services reduced, autistic children are not getting the education or the care they’re entitled to, writes Niamh Deane.

Niamh Deane

The use of ‘withdrawal rooms’ in schools with students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) came under public scrutiny this week, after it was revealed that children with ASD were sometimes being placed in isolation for extended periods after becoming extremely distressed (commonly referred to as a ‘meltdown’).

Here, Niamh Deane, a founder of Parent’s Against Isolation Rooms Ireland , writes about the controversial use of the rooms and – more generally – about the lack of proper training for teachers caring for children with ASD.

CHILDREN WITH AN Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis of any sort will need additional care and attention in school. While some of these children are able to attend mainstream schools, and some need specialised units, parents are finding that the level of care diagnosed children receive falls below the standard given for children without a diagnosis, and that even if a child is placed in a specialised school for their particular diagnosis this does not guarantee the child’s safety.

Here is the account from one parent who experienced problems regarding the treatment of their child in school:

Our child is non-verbal and could not tell us what had happened at school as he started coming home crying and when we found bruising around his groin we became very concerned. The school said everything was okay and the teachers said he was happy at school. We asked for an assessment and the behaviour therapist could not find anything wrong with his behaviour at home and asked the school to let her do a school-based assessment. It took a while for the school to give permission and she found that during the day our child’s glasses and communication cards would be removed as another child kept trying to play with them – this was their solution. We made the decision to remove our child from the school and within months his behaviour and speech improved. We are still looking for a suitable school placement.

Finding the right school for your child with a diagnosis can be frustrating and stressful; parents are finding that even the specialised school are selective about who they accept.

A parent recalled trying to find a placement:

When we were looking at school placements for our child I first went to my local school with an ASD unit to be told that they have no catchment policy and we had 50 children ahead of us. I started looking at all the units I could access, only to be told that some of the units were for ‘mild delays’ or that as my child has behavioural issues those units would not be suitable. We then applied to our local mainstream primary school to be told that our child would have a safety hazard and they had no placements.

Our teachers have an impossible job

When a child is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) the parents of the child are thrown into a world that, in general, they previously knew nothing about. It’s like everything in life – if you have not gone through it, you don’t fully understand what it is like. With this in mind, it’s easy enough to understand how a teacher who does not have a child diagnosed on the spectrum can find an autistic meltdown a little frightening at first.

Our teachers have an impossible job, with class sizes increasing and support services reduced. At the moment Ireland schools can apply for a grant to install what the Department of Education call a ‘safe space’, another term for this space is ‘isolation or withdrawal room’. These are intended to be safe places that autistic children can be brought into to become de-stimulated when they are experiencing a meltdown. They’re meant to be used as a last resort – and for very short periods of time.

However, accepted practices for these rooms are left up to each school’s board or management, and this has led to their misuse. Children are being left in a distressed state locked into isolation for hours at a time.

Charles O’Mahony, a lecturer in public law in NUI Galway, says that the restrictive use of interventions such as ‘withdrawal rooms’ raises a number of human rights issues:

“Ireland is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and it is expected that Ireland will ratify the Convention once the Assisted Decision-Making Bill 2013 replaces the archaic Lunacy Regulation (Ireland) Act 1871.  The UN Disability Convention guarantees the right to liberty of persons with disabilities and the use of “withdrawal rooms” raises questions about the right to liberty guaranteed in Article 14 of the Convention.  The misuse of these ‘withdrawal rooms’ may also contravene the right to liberty as provided for by Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights and depending upon the circumstances of the case may contravene the Irish law on false imprisonment.”

The right to an inclusive education

These rooms are used in primary level schools and children as young as six have been placed into isolation as a result of inadequate training of all staff members involved. Young children need to know they are being listened to and are safe in school; placing primary level children into isolation will not only crush their self-esteem, but it can also lead to their physical harm during an attempt to place them in the room, and psychological harm at being placed in an environment not suitable to deal with the issue at hand. This can then lead to additional services needing to be used by the parents to help the child deal with the side-effects being placed in isolation.

Charles O’Mahony has suggested that the use of the rooms also interferes with a child’s right to an inclusive education:

“Secluding students with disabilities in “withdrawal rooms” is also at odds with the right to an inclusive education required by Article 24 of the UN Disability Convention. Indeed the provision of funding by the Government for “withdrawal rooms” may contravene the UN Convention in the first instance. The ongoing cuts by Government for teaching supports for children with disabilities is a corresponding concern, as the lack of support may be linked to the increased use of these restrictive practices.  Cuts to funding undermine the Government’s own policy of mainstream education for children with disabilities and bolsters segregation and discrimination.”

A way forward without isolation

Additional training for all teachers in how to help children who have a diagnosis – and specific training in how to help a child with an ASD – is sorely necessary at this point. Creating a space for the child within the class setting where they can go to when they are getting stressed is one option to help with ‘meltdowns’.

A simple and inexpensive solution is to have a soft space at the back of the classroom where the child can sit and re-direct their stress to an activity such as reading a book, building with lego, or colouring a picture. The key is distracting the child so they forget about what it was that caused them to be stressed.

Adam Harris, who has a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, and is a member of the NCSE Consultative Forumsays there’s “no doubt” that there’s a major discrepancy in the qualifications of teachers working in ASD units (who may just be general teachers) and the needs of some of the children in these units: “I think we need to look at training up all teachers in special education to a much higher degree at undergraduate level and also think we should look at mandatory post-grads for those working in ASD units… I think our focus should be on prevention – how our teachers should be equipped to reading the warning signs (as far as possible) and where things are going badly the steps to defuse a situation. I also think quiet rooms, fresh air and sensory rooms are very useful calming tools.”

Niamh Deane is a 32-year-old married full time mother and carer to her three children, two of whom have a diagnosis of an ASD. Committee member of the Special Needs Parent’s Association and the founder of Tabor Children’s Trust a charity working to provide a new Montessori primary school for children living with Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism.

Read: Use of isolation rooms in schools to come under government scrutiny

Revealed: Autistic children locked in unsupervised ‘isolation rooms’ for hours

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Niamh Deane

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