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'Anxiety levels in my house are through the roof': Major challenge ahead for parents of children with ASD

Against the backdrop of Covid-19, parents worry how their children with special needs will cope with school this year.

Stock image of empty classroom.
Stock image of empty classroom.
Image: Sam Boal

THOUSANDS OF CHILDREN will return to school over the coming days but for families where there are children with special needs the risk of contracting Covid-19 is just one of many factors of great concern for parents. 

A survey carried out by Autism charity AsIAm this month revealed how 77% of parents believe their children will need additional supports but that 61% believe their children will not get them – without those supports greater anxiety, a heightened risk of meltdowns, and serious mental health impacts are inevitable. 

Claire Clark lives in Cashel, Co Tipperary with her three children who were all diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

Her youngest, Kayla (8), has coped well during lockdown, according to her mum, but will begin the school term in an ASD unit at a new school next Monday. Even the mention of the word school alone has prompted meltdowns in recent weeks. 

Kayla’s older brother Ethan (15), is set to return to an ASD unit at a second level school on the same day. And the eldest of the three siblings, Josh (18) will return to a special needs school. 

Each of the three children, with their own specific needs, coped in different ways during the prolonged closure of schools but with the home schooling routine out the window in just a few days time, concern is growing for how they will each be supported in the return to a classroom environment. 

“The anxiety levels in my house at the moment are through the roof because they all know they’re going back to school,” she told TheJournal.ie.

“I still haven’t got Kayla her uniform because when I planned to do it, she had a total meltdown when it was mentioned… I don’t want to have her so high up in the air that come Monday morning I am back to square one trying to get her into the school.

“All I’m hearing from Kayla at the moment is can I bring her into the school myself and no, I can’t, I know that already and I’ve been told that by the school. There’s a specific line I have to drop her to and that is it. I know her anxiety levels will be very, very high at that stage.”

Speaking in the Dáil last month, Junior Minister for Special Education, Josepha Madigan insisted that “no child will be left behind” when schools reopen this month.

At the time, Madigan said: “We cannot tolerate a situation in Ireland where we have a child with special needs who isn’t treated equally in terms of a right of access to education as every other child. It is something that I am determined to rectify.”

“In the Department of Education, 20% of the budget goes towards special education – that’s €1.9 billion, in recognition and acknowledgement of the work that needs to be done around special education,” she said. 

Clarke, however, said she and her three children have not had any specific measures communicated to support their return to school next week, and underlying conditions including Asthma in her eight-year-old daughter only heighten her sense of worry. 

“I am all for kids going back to school, I think they need interaction but I think it should have been done at a more reduced rate, and there should be blended learning,” she explained. 

“I have three children in three different schools, two in ASD units in mainstream schools and one in a special needs school. 

“Ethan will be in an ASD unit with 12 pupils but I still don’t know what is going to happen in relation to him. He wouldn’t have the cop on to be able to do social distancing, he wouldn’t have the cop on to wipe the chairs and tables before he sits down.

“And then I would have the fear that he could take [Covid-19] home… he’s in one room but he’s going to be going to mainstream classes, so there is so much mixed messages. At the beginning it was said that children will stay in classes and teachers move around… but then they’ll be moving for the practicals, and I’m even waiting for that to change again.

There is no proper information being given to me for how this is going to work for children with ASD.

TheJournal.ie contacted the Department of Education for comment on how children with ASD and other special needs are being supported in the return to schools but did not receive a reply at the time of publication. 

Advocates for children with special needs have echoed similar concerns in recent weeks as schools announced individual measures to support a safe return to schools.

“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,” AsIAm founder and CEO Adam Harris said.

“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.”

One in 65 children in school have been diagnosed with ASD and while some attend special needs school, the vast majority attend mainstream schools.

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The impact the return to schools over the coming week has on children with ASD has already been felt in households across the country, weeks before the first day of the new term. 

While the minister with responsibility for supporting their return has insisted no child will be left behind, it has failed to reassure parents that this is the case. 

“Everything just seems to be last-minute now,” Clark said. “Schools are reopening left, right and centre, and down here they’re opening next week so it’s going to be interesting to see what way things are going to work.”

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