Wednesday, 3 November 1993
Seanad Éireann Debate
It is my pleasure to move this motion in the name of my party colleagues. I am  sad that there is an amendment down because while one would not wish to stymie debate in this Chamber, I do not think the issue is politically contentious. It is an issue of how we care about people who have difficulties.
Autism is a lifelong disability which devastates the lives of hundreds of children and adults in this country. Children with autism have severe impairments in the development of communication, social awareness and behaviour. The consequence is a child who has great difficulty understanding the world, which can become a frightening place, full of incomprehensible sounds, sensations and activities, a truly frightening world in which to live.
Although autism is frequently associated with a degree of mental handicap, children with autism may be of normal intelligence but will never be able to appreciate the good things in life such as friendship, real communication or social contact. As yet there is no cure for autism but children with autism respond, often very dramatically, to specialised education suited to their needs. It is now internationally recognised that full, classic autism affects an estimated four in 10,000 of the population but up to 20 in 10,000 exhibit so many of the symptoms that they are usually included within what is known as the autistic continuum.
On that basis, one can argue that there are between 300 and 1,500 children between the ages of four and 18 years with autism in this country. A small number of these children will enjoy appropriate education in specialised environments suited to their needs. Sadly, the vast majority of children with autism will end up in unsuitable situations and, more often than not, they will be misplaced as adults in totally unsuitable long-stay psychiatric or large mental handicap institutions and hospitals. This is a tragedy for them. It is a tragedy for their families and it is a tragedy for this country.
Government policy states specifically that the individuality of each mentally handicapped person must be recognised  and that care must be related to specific need. This being so, it is imperative that the Department of Education should fully recognise, without question, the individuality of persons with autism and draw up programmes to cater for their specific needs. Since the educational and training needs of the person with autism is multi-disciplined, both the Department of Education and the Department of Health must co-operate closely and use their respective expertise to alleviate the plight of all persons with autism.
In this context, it is worth recalling that in 1980 the White Paper on education development identified the need to enable children in special education to continue their schooling at second level. They were noble sentiments but the situation on the ground is less than admirable. At present it would appear that the Department of Education provides no national guidelines for the education of children with autism. Some voluntary programmes, enthusiastically drawn up, exist but because of the non-involvement of the Department of Education with its fund of teaching expertise, these programmes lack the professional input which the Department inspectorate could contribute.
The education and training of the child with autism must take place in four areas: first, the home; secondly, the school; thirdly, the residential home and, finally, in the community. The care of the child with autism must be multi-disciplinary. The education and training needs of the child require at all stages special skills from the personnel involved; not only special skills but also particular dedication. Since the education and training of many of these children is on a 24-hour a day basis involving the home, the school and the residential centre, the normal school management structures clearly do not apply. As a consistent school programme is vital throughout the years these children must not be discharged for the two or three months of the summer nor must their education and training be interrupted for the usual Christmas or Easter breaks.
 It is very important that children be integrated into the family structure so that social behaviour at each stage of their development will be as normal as possible. If this policy is followed, difficulties in acquiring acceptable social behaviour at a later stage will be averted. There is a considerable financial benefit to the State in investing in training at this stage to avert the problems later.
This all points to the need for co-operation between the professionals, particularly the professionals in the Department of Education, and the family. It points in particular to a need for the Department of Education to appoint visiting specialist teachers from a special education section to focus on children with autism.
While on the subject of schools, I cannot avoid reference to the special school which operates in James Connolly House at Blanchardstown. My colleague, Senator McGennis, wishes to refer to that. I suggest to the Minister — and it was suggested to the Minister in the Dáil recently — that urgent attention is required there.
Mr. Roche: As the right to education is enshrined in Article 42 in Bunreacht na hÉireann and also in Article 2 of the United Nations declaration on the rights of the mentally handicapped, I respectfully request the Minister for Education to consider the following recommendations which have been proposed by the Irish Society for Autism with a view to implementing them in the interest of all children with autism requiring the specialised expertise of the Department of Education.
 The first point suggested by the society is that the Department should give official recognition to autism as an affliction suffered by a specific group of children omitted from the categories of handicap in the report of the primary education review body of 1990. Secondly, the society suggests that we should ensure that individual education programmes are drawn up to cater for the specific needs of children with autism. Thirdly, the Department should ensure that the individuality of each child with autism is recognised and that they receive education in a stress free environment where well thought through stimulation will be readily available and progress made, recorded and evaluated and, in particular, evaluated by the inspectorate of the Department. Fourthly, the Department of Education should provide a comprehensive service which would be responsible for the special needs of the autistic child but which should also provide a follow-up service beyond 18 years of age. It is an established fact that the capacity of a person with autism will still be developing at that age and it is very important that such young adolescents be exposed to continuing learning experiences of an appropriate kind.
The Department of Education should ensure that special education and training of children with autism will result in their learning first, expressive skills — communication and receptive — secondly, leisure skills — the skills of normal play activities, interaction with other children and adults, participation in simple games — thirdly, self-sufficiency and independent skills, to prepare these children for a meaningful existence in their adult life; fourthly, social skills which will enable them to share in the good things of life that we all take so much for granted and to encourage interaction with others.
The Department has also been requested to acknowledge that there should be no justification for excluding the person with autism from access to the accumulated expertise of the teaching profession. Special teachers catering for the special needs of children with autism  should be employed and supervised by the Department of Education.
The next point put forward in the programme by the society is that psychologists employed by the Department of Education and engaged in programme planning have also built up a considerable fund of expertise. Perhaps this fund of expertise could and should be used in in-service training for teachers.
The society suggests that the Department should ensure that all teachers taking the special education course should be acquainted with the methodology as well as the theory and practice of teaching the child with autism.
The next suggestion the society makes is that planning ahead can only be haphazard without in-depth research. The society has put forward the reasonable proposition that schools of medicine attached to our universities must be encouraged and assisted to become involved in research into this condition.
Finally, the society suggests that, since the special needs of the child with autism requires the multidisciplined skills of the Department of Education and of the Department of Health, both Departments should accept joint responsibility for their respective inputs and that those inputs should be forthcoming without any limitation.
Autism has been described as one of the most bewildering, devastating, heartbreaking and puzzling disorders known to man. Whatever its cause it is a cruel condition for the autistic person. It is a nightmare for the family. The Irish Society for Autism was founded in 1963 and is one of the oldest in the field in Europe. It has achieved a huge amount through purely voluntary effort. At its community farm project in Drumfirth it provides for the care and development of young people with autism. I recently visited that farm and I was moved beyond expression by the care, love and attention evident there.
In partnership with the Eastern Health Board and through the Gheel training group the society provides services and training, four residential homes, a day care centre and a therapeutic workshop.  It is a founder member of the international association, Autism-Europe. I put these points before the House simply to prove the bona fides of the society, its acceptability, and that the society has 30 years of experience in this field. The society is now in its thirtieth year and it has succeeded in getting the Department of Health to recognise autism as a specific syndrome since 1983. It is now time, ten years later, for the Department of Education to do likewise. I put to the Minister of State — I know he is a compassionate person and will carry the message from this House to the Minister for Education-that every other developed state in the world has now taken this step and I cannot understand why our Department of Education should be out of step as there is only a small point of difference.
Last night the Minister of State handled questions on this issue on the Adjournment in the other House. I read the Minister of State's reply with great interest this morning and at first it raised my spirits but when I read deeper into the response I was disappointed. On the final issue of recognition the Department has not moved enough. I will listen carefully to the Minister of State's response here tonight and I know he will do what he can.
With regard to the Fine Gael amendment, I know it was put forward in the sincerest way but it is a mistake. This issue should not be confused with other issues, which would happen if we were to accept the amendment. I commend this motion to Senators and I hope it will have their support.
Mr. Farrell: It gives me pleasure to second this motion as it deals with a serious problem. We must do everything possible to ensure that children with this or any other handicap get the best in training and education and whatever services can be made available. I am heartened because when I first joined the health board 20 years ago there were only mental hospitals available for disabled and mentally handicapped children and that was sad. I took a positive stand in 1982, the year of the disabled, and I  drove a pony and trap from Bundoran to Ballsbridge to highlight and increase awareness of the need to do more for handicapped children. I am glad that since then quite a lot has been done.
Autism is a relatively rare but complex disability. It is estimated that one child in every thousand will develop autism and that approximately three quarters of all autistic children and adults also have a mental handicap. Diagnosis is not always easy as there may be other disabilities and childhood may present them in quite similar ways. Diagnosis can only be made when a particular pattern of behaviour is evident and the symptoms include language impairment, impairment of social relationships, inflexibility and rigidity.
The experience is that all of these symptoms are usually evident by the age of two and a half to three years. It also occurs in conjunction with other disorders and most frequently with a mental handicap. When I was researching this I was amazed to discover that it affects three or four times more boys than girls. Some autistic people seem to have exceptional talents such as musical, numerical or memory skills. It is estimated that up to 80 per cent of all autistic people will require support and supervision throughout their lives.
While it is important to provide education etc., we must also make other provision for people with autism. Education is only a step on that ladder and we must continue it. I know that there is considerable interest in the service provision in my own health board area. While the numbers are small in our region there would be 20 children in the north-west who would be considered to be primarily autistic and who have varying levels of mental handicap secondary to their autistic condition. As has been the case elsewhere it has been found more difficult to define autism in adults.
Up until recently the majority of children with significant autistic features were referred from my health board area, the north-west, usually to St. Paul's or Beaumont Hospital for diagnosis. This external service will now be supported in  the region following the appointment of a consultant child psychiatrist for the north-west. This is important and every health board should have sufficient child psychiatrists to assess those children at as early an age as possible. As we all know, to detect and confirm what is wrong with somebody is half way to solving the problem. It is important that we have more of those professionals. It also requires co-ordinating a range of services including paediatric services, child psychiatric consultant services, psychology services, speech and language services, counsellors, social workers and nursing services.
During the summer of 1993 an informal meeting took place in my health board between parents and professionals to discuss the possibility of setting up a branch of PAPA (Parents and Professionals Autism) a voluntary support group and there has been a follow up meeting in recent weeks. The support group is now making good headway. In April 1993 the North-Western Health Board took its own initiative with regard to in-service training in autism and a range of professionals working in the area attended a two day course on the treatment and education of autistic and related communications-handicapped children.
The first thing we must do is educate more people on how to treat autism. That seminar was very valuable. Good professionals spoke at it and more health boards should have such seminars and get in professionals who know their job and who can talk with the parents and the professionals dealing with autism. In that way we would really be making progress. Speech therapy is one of the first things we should consider. If we can improve the speech and the ability to relate to speech then we will be taking a step toward further education. Whatever we spend, I appeal to the Government to make it a priority to ensure that those children get a first class service. The numbers involved are small — one in every 1,000. There are only 20 in the north west. The only way of ensuring this is by doing what our health board is undertaking, namely co-ordinating all the services  that are necessary, to come up with a system that will be effective in ensuring that the child will be better equipped to meet the world at the appropriate time despite its disability.
Learning difficulties for children who are fully fit can be severe, but for autistic children they are much more severe and they need extra care and attention. It has been proved that where such children receive this attention they do learn.
Speech impaired or absent. We should have more speech therapists to help such children. Obsessive routines and attitudes. Lack of normal eye contact. Anxious and distressed by change. Tantrums and destructive behaviour. Echo words in a meaningless way. Sometimes possesses a special talent.
That last feature is a key point, perhaps the most important point to emerge from my reading on the subject. It is important that so many of them have this special talent, for figures, for words or for music. We should ensure that the special talent they have is exploited to the full. That is why we must give 100 per cent support to this motion and ensure that those facilities are provided.
In my own health board area I believe that we are doing a good job. We have only 20 autistic children but we intend to keep working on it and we will have some more seminars. Such seminars are very professional. We had prominent speakers at the recent one day seminar, including Miss Heather Crawford, a speech and language therapist, Miss Kate Doherty,  a support teacher and many others. It is important that people like these be involved. Not alone must we educate the children, we must educate ourselves on how to pass on that information and make it relevant to the child. That can only be done by more services and therefore it gives me great pleasure to second the motion.
“deplores the failure of the Minister for Education to honour specific commitments given to the National Association for the Mentally Handicapped of Ireland, that £25 million would be provided in 1993 to support and develop services for the mentally handicapped including autistic children of which only £8 million has been provided to date.”
I compliment Senator Roche and Senator Farrell on the excellent introduction to the debate. I hope this debate will be the beginning of something rather than merely another few thousand words with nothing to show for them at the end of the day.
During the course of the last election, Barry Desmond, who was then the director of elections for the Labour Party, saw fit to write a letter in unequivocal terms making a clear positive commitment. He stated:
In the area of mental handicap there is a recognised crisis for the 25,000 people with such a handicap. That crisis may relate to education, training, employment or residential care — depending on family and individual circumstances. Among the detailed proposals in Labour's programme is the provision of £25 million next year to catch up on the “Needs and Abilities” report prepared by the last administration and effectively shelved.
That letter was sent out on 18 November, 1992 obviously for the purpose of gathering a few votes together. Can one imagine the ethos of the party that would do that to the most deprived group of people in the country, trying to gather together a few votes from the parents, the families and the carers of the mentally handicapped and autistic children? It was quite incredible and diabolical that this should have been done. The Labour Party has done far too much of that. They went out to the hangar in Aer Lingus also. The chickens are coming home to roost on a Boeing 707 and they do not have to stop at Shannon. What has happened in the last 12 months is quite incredible and the Labour Party is reaping its just rewards.
The Minister dealt with this matter yesterday in the Dáil in answer to a question by Deputy Callely. I assume that the content of the Minister's speech today will be somewhat similar. He gave a good diagnosis of the difficulties involved with autism. There are matters which the Minister spoke of yesterday with which we would have to disagree.
We can imagine the difficulties parents face when they realise that one of their children is autistic. My information is that a child for perhaps six to 12 months can appear to be normal and then suddenly there can be regression and the child at that stage can be confirmed to be autistic. One can imagine the pain and suffering of parents when they discover that awful fact in the initial stages. Parents need support and we in this House would have to agree that the State is not good at offering that kind of support. We must accept that and work from there. The support services that are offered are entirely inadequate and misdirected.
The Minister informed the Dáil yesterday in his analysis that depending on individual circumstances, educational provision can be made. He went on to give four instances. First, the child can be sent to an ordinary national school  with the support of a remedial or resource teacher. The second option is to attend a special class at an ordinary national school. Third, they could attend a special school for the mentally handicapped. The last alternative was to send an autistic child to a special school for children with emotional and/or behavioural disorders.
The fourth option is entirely unacceptable to people with autistic children and also to the Irish Society for Autism. Ireland is the only country in the developed world still accepting the notion that autistic children can be cared for in that type of environment. I ask the Minister to examine this issue with his officials and decide that is not an appropriate way to deal with autistic children. Perhaps he will indicate this evening he has changed his mind.
The Department is only now coming to terms with this matter. As a result of the commitment made last year the Minister for Education may straighten her thinking before this year is out and the Minister of State and herself will start to provide adequate services from next year.
There is not a great level of awareness of this problem. If a survey was carried out it would be found the number of people who understand or who have come in contact with autism would be relatively small, because the number of children suffering from it is also small. Autism comes in varying degrees and depending on the definition used the figure for sufferers is between 300 and 1,400. The population of autistic children is scattered, which makes it more difficult to deal with the problem. That does not mean we cannot tackle it.
As the Minister said last night there are various ways of handling the issue. The first three options he mentioned are quite acceptable but standing on their own they are useless. What is the point in sending an autistic child to an ordinary national school even if it has a remedial teacher if that teacher knows nothing of autism? It is impossible for the teacher to cope and impossible for the child to benefit from that. Sadly it happens all over Ireland. The vast majority of  remedial teachers know nothing of autism. They do not understand it or know how to deal with it.
A number of steps need to be taken. One would be to ensure every autistic child, no matter where they are placed, will have the services of a teacher who understands and is able to deal with the difficulties they have. The autistic population in Ireland is suffering enormously as a result of the lack of services provided. Many end up unable to cope in circumstances where they should be able to, because of poor support. The years of frustration they suffer means their behavioural problems are enormous and some who normally would be able to work in rehabilitation clinics and similar places cannot do so because of their ill-treatment.
I ask the Minister to examine the issue and decide autistic children have no place in schools for children with emotional and behavioural disorders. That should be settled tonight and be the basis of future development. Since Dublin has one third of the population of the country there is a greater concentration of autistic children here and that is true to a lesser degree in the other cities. A special centre should be developed in Dublin. It would have enormous advantages because research could be undertaken there also. A centre for about 20 autistic children would be most beneficial and a good start.
The Minister of State should speak to the Minister for Education with a view to making the £25 million available next year to set up centres for autistic children which are appropriate to their needs.
Mr. Burke: I welcome the Minister to the House. I second the amendment. Credit is due to Members from the Fianna Fáil benches for putting down the motion. It is the first sign of a split in the coalition.
Mr. Burke: This debate is obviously to embarrass the junior partners in Government when one sees the words of the Motion: “That Seanad Éireann calls on the Minister for Education to recognise and make provision for the special educational needs of children with autism”. It is proper that Fianna Fáil cannot fully embarrass its junior partners, so Senator Cotter has put down the amendment. There is a lack of funding for this purpose and for autistic and mentally handicapped children. The Senator is right to say Mr. Barry Desmond, the former Labour MEP, announced before the last General Election that Labour would provide £25 million towards alleviating some of these problems. A mere £8 million has been provided.
I come from County Mayo, the third largest county. It is part of the Western Health Board along with County Galway, the second largest county, and County Roscommon, which is also large. Autism is a huge problem in County Mayo alone. Proper facilities for the county would require substantial funding. The Minister should consider setting up a school in the western region for this purpose.
These people feel they are forgotten, especially so at present. Just over 12 months ago, a matter of days before the election, Mr. Desmond made the famous announcement about the £25 million to the National Association for the Mentally Handicapped of Ireland. There were no “if”s, “but”s or “maybe”s. There would be no backing away from the commitment because of financial constraints. That was made clear in the statement. Labour was going to put mental handicap services on a proper footing for once and for all. The mental handicap association and parents and friends of the mentally handicapped believed the Labour Party. What happened was that only £8 million was given, unevenly distributed around the country.
Do we realise the trauma and pressure associated with the handling of people with mental disabilities at a time of inadequate finance? Many such parents are prisoners in their homes because of the  lack of services and the need for constant, 24-hour vigilance. This is particularly so with autistic children, whose crisis relief is to be severely curtailed or drastically altered to give them a crisis relief service in theory but one totally unsuited to the personal needs of the autistic sufferer. Parents are begging for the most basic facilities for their children. Is it right that these parents should have to scrounge and beg on the doorsteps of their communities for voluntary contributions in order to try and scrape together the semblance of a service? Is it right that these people should have been told in the second week of November last year by the Labour Party that it would give £25 million in 1993 only to be told a mere few weeks later that it was to cut back on that by £17 million?
All they want is a service adequate to cater for the people's needs. I believe that the money can be found to give them the service they require if the political will is there, but I am not sure that it is there. I compliment the Fianna Fáil Members here this evening for putting down this motion. Senator Cotter has no option but to go the whole way in putting forward this amendment and I compliment him. I wish to share some of my time with Senator Cregan.
Mr. Cregan: I come from a county that takes pride in the provisions that exist for many of our handicapped. We take pride in the fact that people from all over Europe and the world have learned from those provisions, particularly since the late fifties regarding the Hope organisation and the Rehab centres in our county. We are very proud of that but of course we are not proud that, unfortunately, we have so many handicapped and sick people.
I seldom try to embarrass or question  any person in Government if I felt they were doing any good. If moneys were being allocated I would welcome that. I welcome this discussion on this issue. I am very conscious of it because I have a nephew who is autistic. I am very conscious in particular of one sad and very disturbing instance regarding a person who took a case to the High Court about a handicapped child. I welcome the fact that the High Court recognised that the person was entitled to a basic education. All children in the Republic of Ireland are entitled to a basic education.
I do not normally do this but sadly we are now in a situation where the same people who said they would make sure that £25 million would be allocated have not only said that they will not be allocating it but have appealed to the Supreme Court against a decision of the High Court regarding a person and a handicapped child. Sadly there is nobody on the other side of the House who is relevant to that party and that Minister. I find that very disturbing, not just coming from the Minister as a Labour Party member but from the Government. Decisions on such issues must be discussed at Cabinet level. I find it disturbing that this person can be told by Department officials and the Minister that their High Court costs, which came to something in the region of £7,000, would be paid but at the same time the question as to whether the child is entitled to basic education is being appealed to the Supreme Court. That is a very sad reflection on us as a people. They were prepared to say we will give £25 million, which they did not do, and then they appeal a case. Has the Minister any information as to why the appeal should go ahead at all? Basic excuses were made. For instance, it was disclosed first in a Sunday paper at that time, as I am sure the Minister is aware, and then the Minister's officials——
Mr. Cregan: I appreciate that. The Minister's officials then tried to make an  argument later in the week. It should be discussed but it will have to be at another time because unfortunately I do not have the time now. However, I will not let it go. All of us in the Oireachtas have a duty to make sure when such an argument is made that it should not be let go. It will not be let go.
Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Aylward): First, I apologise for the absence of the Minister who is unavoidably away. I assure Senators that the views expressed by them in this important debate will be brought to the attention of the Minister and the officials and will be taken fully into consideration.
At the outset, I wish to say that I recognise the special educational needs of children with autism. This condition is one of the most severe developmental disorders affecting children, characterised as it is by acute difficulties with communication, relationships and behaviour. In addition, it is usually associated with a variable degree of mental handicap. One of the problems facing service providers is that there is some uncertainty regarding the exact prevalence of autism. The number of children so identified may vary, depending on the criteria being used. However, we know that somewhere between two and four per 10,000 children can be expected to have autistic symptoms to a marked degree. Therefore, from 12 to 22 new cases per year may be anticipated.
These figures would suggest that there may be up to 176 children with autism in the eight-year primary school age range, and up to 110 more in the five-year post-primary age range. A greater number of children may show lesser symptoms of the disability. Approximately 75 per cent of children with autism come within the mental handicap range and boys outnumber girls by a ratio of three or four to one.
The number of areas of functioning affected and the degree to which they are affected varies from one individual to another. Approximately half of those with a significant level of autism cannot use language for communication. About  80 per cent are likely to need life-long support and supervision and from 5 per cent to 10 per cent may become independent as adults. Early identification and intervention are essential for children with autism to enable appropriate provision to be made. Depending on the circumstances, general practitioners, public health nurses, paediatricians, area medical officers and teachers, may at some point be confronted with a child with autism. Hence it would be desirable that the training of these professionals should include information on the diagnosis of the disability. Early diagnosis and prompt referral will enable the health authorities to implement a pre-school programme for each affected child. Home based programmes will usually be supplemented by pre-school attendance by the age of three. Depending on the level of intellectual impairment and additional handicaps, the child may be appropriately placed in a local pre-school or a child development centre.
At school age the child with autism requires an education suited to his or her assessed needs and the provision in each case should take account of social, language and cognitive development. Depending on individual circumstances, educational provisions can be made in any one of a number of areas. Senator Cotter has disagreed with item (d) but I will go through them and then take up that matter, they are: (a) an ordinary national school with the support of a remedial or resource teacher; (b) a special class in an ordinary national school; (c) a special school for children with a mental handicap; (d) a special school for children with emotional and/or behavioural disorders.
The nature of the educational provisions that should be made for autistic children was one of the issues examined by the Special Education Review Committee. That committee concluded that the special education needs of autistic children could vary from child to child and that accordingly a range of different provisions, including placement in a special school for emotionally disturbed individuals, might be appropriate. Any  such placement would only take place after a psychological and psychiatric assessment of each child.
I must emphasise that no one type of educational provision will meet the needs of all children with autism. There is a continuum of special educational needs which is best served by a corresponding range of educational provisions. Accordingly, some needs may be catered for in the ordinary school while more acute needs can best be met in a more specialised setting.
The particular requirements of children with autism have been examined by the Special Education Review Committee as part of its remit covering all children with special educational needs. While generally supporting the strategies outlined above, the committee made specific recommendations in relation to the level of teaching support for autistic children enrolled in special and ordinary national schools; the adoption of a standard classification system for identifying and describing autism; and the appointment of child care assistants in schools and classes with autistic children. In addition, the committee identified a number of principles which should underpin the provision of educational services for all children with special educational needs, including those with autism. Among these principles are that: all children, including those with special education needs, have a right to an appropriate education; the needs of the individual child should be the paramount consideration when decisions are being made concerning the provision of special education for that child; a continuum of services should be provided for children with special educational needs, ranging from full-time education in ordinary classes, with additional support as may be necessary, to full-time education in special schools.
Arrangements are being made at present for the publication of the committee's report and my Department is actively considering its recommendations. Also, in keeping with the policy of encouraging the maximum  amount of discussion and debate in relation to educational issues, a seminar dedicated to special education and the committee's report is being organised for 6 December next in the Royal Marine Hotel, Dún Laoghaire. Among the objectives of this seminar is to allow those involved in special education, either as deliverers or recipients of the service, to convey their views on the nature and development of provision in this vital area.
On the subject of service deliverer, I must at this stage pay tribute to the enormous contribution made by the voluntary organisations in the provision of care and educational services for those with disabilities. In particular, the Irish Society for Autism has, since its foundation in 1963, played a leading role in promoting services for people with autism and that contribution is much appreciated.
Mr. Aylward: Let me turn now to the question of health funding for the people with a mental handicap, including children with autism. I would first like to emphasise that the Government is fully committed to the provision of the highest possible level of service for persons with a mental handicap and to ensuring that the services which they need are theirs as of right. The integration of services with those for the community as a whole will be encouraged so that persons with a disability will feel and regard themselves as an integral part of that community.
Services for people with a mental handicap have developed substantially over the last 20 years. High standards of service provision have been achieved; nothwithstanding the fact that our country's economic resources are lower than most of our European partners with whom we tend to compare our services. This is in itself an achievement and is due to the sustained efforts of the voluntary and statutory sectors. We have established an international reputation in the field of mental handicap.
 The Government has outlined its commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government to the provision of additional resources to accelerate the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the Review Group on Mental Handicap Services — Needs and Abilities. A substantial amount of money is being spent on a range of services for people with mental handicap. In 1993, approximately £217 million will be spent on these services. This expenditure includes the funding provided by the Department of Health to the direct funded voluntary agencies, services provided for people with mental handicap in psychiatric hospitals, in health board centres and by voluntary agencies funded through section 65 of the Health Act, 1953, and other grants by the health boards. It also includes expenditure on disabled persons' maintenance allowances and domiciliary care allowances. In the budget this year, the Government made an additional £6.5 million available to develop services for people with mental handicap. In addition to this, the Minister for Health made available a sum of £2 million from within the Estimates of his own Department to strengthen the funding base of some direct funded mental handicapped agencies and to meet some essential service needs.
Some £4 million has been allocated to the health board regions and this money will be used to provide a broad range of additional services along the following lines: 90 residential places for the provision of ongoing care and for emergency and respite care; 200 day care places for a wide variety of community based services; the improvement of the home support programme which was initiated last year; the continuation of the transfer of persons with a mental handicap from psychiatric hospitals to more appropriate hostel accommodation in the community; the creation of further early intervention and child education and development services; the improvement of services in St. Ita's Hospital in Portrane and the commissioning of new bungalow accommodation  at the Daughters of Charity on the Navan Road in Dublin.
Provision has also been made for the capital investment necessary to support the initiatives which will be put in place this year. The allocation of the £2.5 million capital funding made available in the budget will be directly related to the service developments agreed by the regional mental handicap co-ordinating committees and approved by the Department of Health. This is by far the largest single allocation ever made to services for persons with a mental handicap and is a mark of the determination of the Government to give a high priority to the development of services for such persons.
A discussion paper on services for autism, prepared by the Department of Health's adviser on mental handicap, was recently circulated by the Department to the various service providers, both statutory and voluntary, and to others interested in this field.
On the question of a commitment made in relation to a specific level of funding, I understand, and I have learned here this evening that a promise of an additional £25 million for persons with a mental handicap was made in the Labour Party election manifesto. This matter was dealt with in some detail by the Minister for Health when he addressed the Dáil on 25 May last. On the Programme for Government discussions he explained that compromises had to be made. However, I would once again like to reiterate that the various commitments——
Mr. Aylward: This debate is too serious for that type of behaviour. However, I would once again like to reiterate that the various commitments in relation to persons with a mental handicap and a disability generally, as set out in the Programme for a Partnership Government, are real. Progress has already been made on a number of these commitments, for example the appointment of a Minister for Equality and Law Reform to co-ordinate all Government initiatives for persons with a disability and to promote their rights; the provision of an additional £8.5 million in 1993 to speed up the implementation of “Needs and Abilities”; the increasing involvement of parents and families of persons with a mental handicap in the planning of services through their representation on the regional mental handicap co-ordinating committees.
While the Government has, in 1993, made available the largest ever increase in funding for services for people with mental handicap, it does recognise — I am only too ready to admit this — that much more needs to be done if we are to meet the needs of those with mental handicap who are on waiting lists and for their families.
I can assure the House that the goodwill of the Ministers concerned, both in Education and Health, as already shown by their actions since coming to office a few short months ago, will direct this goodwill towards those with mental handicap.
Dr. Henry: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. However, I felt his speech addressed the amendment to the  motion on mental handicap far more than the main motion itself regarding autism and this is disappointing. One development I am glad to see is that no contributor has made any attempt to romanticise the handicap because autism is a serious condition. It pains me enormously when I find that many are inclined to describe various types of mental handicap as trivial conditions which can be coped with by parents and families. This condition certainly cannot. While Senator Farrell was correct to refer to certain children and young adults with special skills, for example, in mathematics and music, the romanticisation of the condition in the film “Rainman”, where Dustin Hoffman was portrayed as a mathematical genius with autism, was unfortunate.
Autism, as Senator Roche said, is a most bewildering condition. I can remember the first child I saw with this condition when I was a medical student in Harcourt Street Hospital. Unfortunately, the child often looks normal and it seems that if one could snap their fingers behind them, all would be well and that they would respond, make eye contact, speak properly — all the points the various Senators have mentioned and described correctly. “Bewildering” is the right description for this condition and one of the first matters that we must recognise is that early diagnosis is important.
The Minister referred to the special training for those in general practice — public health nurses and so forth — so that these children are recognised at an early stage. We also have to address the grave shortage of child psychiatrists because they are the ones who will have to make a definite diagnosis. We are learning more often that an initial wrong diagnosis in mental handicap can cause years of incorrect education and treatment being given to children. There is a shortage of child psychiatrists and there are long waiting lists. This matter must be addressed before the Minister tries to educate these children. The lack of places for educating these children was  described in a moving letter in The Irish Times from somebody from Senator Burke's area, County Mayo. I quote:
I am the father of an autistic young man, Caleb, who is nearly 18. For the past 12 years he has attended a school for the moderately mentally handicapped — a square peg in a round hole, as autistic people require specific programmes and management. He has had to travel nearly two hours every morning and two hours every afternoon during this period.
How would we feel if normal children had to travel for two hours each morning and afternoon? We would consider it disgraceful. The fact that a child with these severe problems must do this makes it worse. He went on to say:
We are desperate and we know many others in the same position (I have forwarded names and case histories to the Minister). I don't know how we are going to cope. We are an isolated, marginalised group who find ourselves scrabbling with one another over the scraps from the table.
The fact that such a letter must appear in a newspaper is disgraceful. It should be possible to deal with this situation given the small number of these children. Not only is it important that these children be dealt with and given specific educational programmes for their own sake, but also because they can be extremely difficult to deal with at home, which may cause family stress. The man who wrote this letter said that parents feel desperate. In his letter he thanks the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly who pointed out that people should not have to resort to public demonstrations to get help for their children in this type of situation. These children and their families deserve justice.
The Ombudsman has also written about this matter. These people have explored all avenues to try to get help for their children. As Senator Roche said, little residential care is available for these children. Residential care is appropriate because the children are spread throughout the country. When the Minister  reports back to the Minister for Education he should urge her and the Minister for Health to approach this matter jointly. The phrase “the child was a square peg in a round hole” is important, as autistic people require highly specialised programmes and management. Yet the Minister did not address this situation this evening.
Mrs. McGennis: I support this motion. As Senator Cotter said, few of us understand this matter. Those who fully understand this matter are in the public gallery this evening and I apologise that this debate has become a political football because that it is not what they came here for. Fianna Fáil put down this motion because we recognise all is not right in this area and we are attempting to rectify some of the problems which exist.
Once a child has been diagnosed he should be provided with specialised educational services. The provision of such services should depend on the severity of the autism. There is positive evidence that people with autism can benefit from specialised education in a suitable environment. Depending on the needs of the child with autism, services could be provided in any of the following settings.
Some of this concurs with part of the Minister's speech this evening and the report in the Dáil yesterday. It appears some elements of this document have been lifted, for example, a normal class in ordinary schools; special classes in ordinary schools; special schools for the development of children with autism; special classes in schools for handicapped children on a day or residential basis and parents should be counselled and instructed in their child's problem and needs, etc. The Minister has been selective and he has left out the important aspects of this matter. We are not contributing one iota to helping children with autism.
 The families of children with autism believe they should not be categorised and treated in special schools for children with emotional and/or behavioural disorders. This is wrong and it is a misclassification. They believe there is a need to identify the needs of the child. To lock the child into this category is a serious misclassification and contributes nothing to their circumstances. The purpose of this motion is to ask the Department of Education to recognise the syndrome of autism rather than regard it as a mental handicap, although that has not happened this evening. Individual education programmes are a necessity if the needs of children with autism are to be met.
The document Autism-Europe refers to the involvement of parents. The existing system is inadequate as less than 12 per cent of parents have any meaningful involvement in the development of programmes. The most important thing for a parent — I have three children and I thank God they are healthy — is a meaningful involvement in the growth and development of a child, particularly in the case of autism. Parents feel excluded, they are on the receiving end of what is dished out. They are worried that staff dealing with the problem are not fully trained and are unaware of the specific needs of the children. I do not mean to be critical because I do not fully understand this and if I had to deal with autistic children I would do all the wrong things.
Again, I will quote from the document Autism-Europe:“50% of staff reported that their knowledge of autism only came from an in-service seminar.” I welcome the Minister's statement that a seminar on autism will be held in December. Some 16 per cent of staff did not have training in autism. That is scandalous. We would not send an unqualified teacher into a remedial class. If these figures are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, I could not defend the situation. Only 22 per cent of staff had post-graduate university training and less than 45 per cent use the term “autism” when discussing the needs of the child with its parents.
We have fallen into that trap this evening. One parent mentioned that people refer to these children as “children like that”. We have not referred specifically to autism, we referred to mental handicaps, etc. Autism is a specific syndrome. I do not want to take away from the intention of the motion, but this has reduced the debate to a level which it should not have done.
Given my experience of three healthy children and from speaking to the parents of autistic children, by placing them with emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children, their potential cannot be realised. Unless they are placed in a proper environment with specific educational programmes, they will be unable to reach their potential. The purpose of the educational system is to allow children to reach their potential and that will not happen if they are misplaced. This will continue to happen if we have what I refer to as the “D-category”, mentioned this evening and in the previous debate.
Senator Roche referred to the situation in Blanchardstown. I was not aware the school had been moved to this location. The Minister said a three-teacher school catering for autistic and emotionally disturbed children is located in two separate premises. To be fair, it was a Labour Senator who brought it up in the House. The Minister responded and said it was a three-teacher school catering for autistic and emotionally disturbed children, located in two separate premises. The interesting thing is that 12 autistic children attend the main school building, comprised of pre-fabricated accommodation, located in the premises of James Connolly Memorial Hospital which is in my constituency.
Mrs. McGennis: A further eight emotionally disturbed children are in residence in a school in a large private house known as Court Hall, four miles away. I know both these buildings well,  and in fact I canvassed at Court Hall. Court Hall is a fine, absolutely beautiful building providing the proper kind of care for those children who are emotionally disturbed. However, I am glad that the children who are emotionally disturbed have been cared for in the right kind of accommodation, but the children with autism are located in a pre-fab in the JCM hospital which was a TB hospital. When I was there on Sunday with my daughter I had to go down to the casualty department. As far as I can see, that entire unit is empty. Nothing is being done with it; nobody is using it. To put children with special needs, autistic children, into pre-fabricated accomodation is wrong.
One of the parents who is a vice-principal in a school told us that the portakabin in his school went on fire and burnt down completely in six minutes. I do not think we take such risks with children who are fully capable, or adults, but to put children with special needs into pre-fabricated accomodation means there is no way they could be evacuated from that building if it went up in flames, although I would hope that I am wrong. If it burnt down in six minutes I would have serious reservations and worries about that. It says something about how we view this. The autistic children are in the pre-fabs, the children with behavioural needs are, thank God, being provided with decent accomodation. I know of other circumstances where they certainly are not.
To conclude, I share Senator Henry's view and I think that the Minister's reply has had to address the amendment. I would have preferred if we had been able to do something positive. I am not going to make a political football of this but I am prepared to take on anything that I feel is wrong. I am not going to sit on this side of the Chamber and start ballyragging the Minister for something he did not do. We could have done something positive here and the Opposition should have supported us. We are trying to improve situations——
Mrs. McGennis: We are trying to eliminate something which is wrong. If we want to have such debates they are probably more appropriate to comhairle and constituency meetings, and ard fheiseanna, where we all sit down and berate one another; they do nothing else.
Mr. Belton: I welcome the opportunity to speak here this evening. Reading this motion from the Fianna Fáil Members, it seems to me that the partnership that was established in a blaze of publicity, caution, time-wasting and promises that it would not be so many weeks until the country was going to be a lot better off, has come unstuck at this early stage.
Mr. Belton: It is very difficult to speak when a Senator insists on interrupting. If she had something constructive to say, she had the opportunity to say it when she was on her feet. So, please refrain.
Mr. Belton: Senator Roche rides again. Please, Senator Roche, I was tired listening to you in the other House. Please give me a break. I listened to you in the Dáil for three and a half years spouting out propaganda of the highest degree. Please refrain.
Acting Chairman: Once again we are descending into the realms of a county council sub-committee. Could you please conduct yourself according to the rules of the debate of the House? Please speak to the motion.
Mr. Belton: This partnership in Government seems to have come unstuck, as I said, because there is nothing to stop the major partner from working this out at the Cabinet table. Some form of a stunt is going on here. It is an effort to wash their hands at the lack of performance so far by this Government, and, in the Minister of State's speech, an effort also — I am sorry to say it but I have to, it is written down — to embarrass the Labour Party who made the promise.
Mr. Belton: However, having said that, it is very difficult when you are a politician not to take note of political happenings around you, and I have to do that. I am sorry I have to do so. Like many other people I have, over the years, been involved in associations to help the mentally handicapped. If this had not been done many of our services, that the Minister of State lauded here, would not be in existence. It was the ordinary people who had to go out and organise fund-raising. We all know that in every area there are always two or three people who seem to carry the burden, but they do get support.
This has produced our services and accomodation — schools for children with special needs, is the way I would like to phrase it. There is no doubt that the well-being of parents of children with special needs is affected. On occasion I have met parents who were at the end of their tether, their nerves were gone because they felt isolated. They had been to health boards, the Department of Education and schools, yet nothing could be done to meet their special needs. That is really what we are talking about: children with special needs who need special attention. The only way that situation can be catered for is (a) to recognise it and (b) to provide the funds. We always seem to come back to funds. Unless the proper commitment and will is there to provide funds then this will not happen.
At present, the people who can provide the funds are in Government. On that side of the House we have two parties in Government and I hope, apart from this debate, that through their own parties — and especially the Fianna Fáil Party — they will make their voices heard and press their Minister for Finance to provide funds to give us the services we are all asking for.
Mr. Magner: The motion which was put down by Fianna Fáil was focused on  a very specific area, and that was autism, nothing else. It did not surround itself with the whole gamut of the mentally handicapped, it decided it would do one thing lest we forget. The motion reads:
Frankly I listened here and in my office to the opening comments of Senator Roche and I thought he put the motion in context, and I would support it fully. But what Fine Gael did, as they are apt to do, was, instead of looking at this on its merits and saying, ‘Let us support it because it needs to be done’, to say, “How are we going to gut this bloody Government?”
Mr. Magner: There is not a thing that Senator Cotter's mind could dredge up that could possibly make me ashamed of my party or this Government. Even he is not capable of such inventiveness. The initial and lasting reaction was “how do we attack the Government?”
Mr. Magner: The handicap Fine Gael suffered from was they could not look at the motion on its merits and say it deserved to be supported. They still can withdraw the amendment and support the motion. If they want to discuss the Labour Party's promise to provide £25 million they should table a motion about this and we will debate it. The Minister for Health responded to this point very well. Contrary to what Senator Cotter said, Deputy Howlin is probably one of the finest Ministers for Health we have had in a long number of years.
Mr. Magner: I have no doubt when his term of office is finished this Government will have done more for the handidcapped in the global sense than any previous Administration and it will be done by both parties in Government. Fine Gael can rescue themselves with some degree of common sense and honour by withdrawing an amendment designed not to advance the cause of children with autism but to attack the Government.
Mr. O'Toole: When I hear people talking about political footballs I always think those who are pushing are doing the right things. If anybody thinks Fine Gael made a political issue of this tonight, it is nothing like the issue I intend making of it, politically and otherwise. This is a political issue because the parents and friends of the handicapped and disabled, people with specific syndromes, to use their own words, have, for as long as I have been involved in education, which is more than a quarter of a century, not only had to deal with the specific problem in their own families but have also been required and compelled to collect a local education tax in the guise of contributions to various organisations dealing with the handicapped. They have been kept in control by threats from Governments of all sides not to rock the boat.
Fine Gael tabled an amendment to the motion. If it was not appropriate it should have been ruled out of order. The Government side should not be whingoing about it; it is either in order or it is not. I have a clear attitude to both the amendment and the motion. I support the amendment which is quite specific and I support the motion. It too is quite specific. I will vote in support of both. It is the only thing that anybody who is committed to dealing with the issues of special education can do. There has to be regret that the money has not been provided. Regardless of the reason and of any compromises Governments had to make, it is a matter of regret for anybody involved in special education that the money was not provided and I deplore its non-availability. Similarly I support the proposal that Seanad Éireann calls on the Minister to recognise and make special provision for autism. There is no problem for those of us who are Independents regarding what we have to do. It is very clear.
 Approximately half a million pupils attend primary education. By any international standards about 15 per cent of them would require special help and attention, including remediation at various levels, and dealing with special syndromes. About 1,000 remedial teachers are dealing with approximately 30,000 pupils. The Department of Education's own statistical bulletin shows there are approximately 12,000 other pupils being dealt with in special classes or special schools. This means there are approximately 30,000 pupils in the primary education system who are not receiving the attention, support and levels of interest from the Government to which they are entitled. This reality puts this State in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was signed by the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in New York three years ago. It puts us in breach of the spirit of our own Constitution which says the State must provide free primary education for all our pupils, including those with the syndrome of autism. Such children are losing out. There is no right or wrong on this issue. These people have been ignored by successive Governments.
I will be debating this area of special education at some length in other fora including the forum on 6 December, the report of which I will welcome. It is a superb report. I do not know if it has been published yet but I have seen it. Those who compiled it have done excellent work and we will support every one of its recommendations, including the one on autism which is superb. However, it cannot be implemented without funding and no level of funding is being provided at this time.
I had intended to deal with the integration of children with disabilities, handicaps or, to use the words of Senators, specific syndromes, into the ordinary local school. I may have time to refer to it later. I now want to deal specifically with autism.
About two months I asked the INTO representative in the south city area to visit the two locations — schools is too grand a word — where children with  autism are being taught. One location is in Quarryvale and the other is in the James Connolly Memorial Hospital. If animals were being dealt with in the way those children are ignored they would not qualify for EC agriculture funding. The only reason I have not taken action on those schools and closed them down is because of our concern for the children and their parents. It is nothing short of a national disgrace; nobody could stand over it. These children are not regarded as a priority. None of the areas on which money is spent by the Department of Education is more important than the need to provide money to look after these children. In many cases they are young adults.
I was in the James Connolly Memorial Hospital location a few years ago when another group moved there from the James Street location, as I recall. There are two classes in a portacabin there. The pupils are being looked after in totally unsuitable accommodation. There is no way any of the things Senator Roche mentioned in his excellent presentation can be implemented in that location. Those children, young adults, individuals, Irish citizens, are not receiving any support from us in those two locations. One is a private house in Quarryvale, the other is a portacabin in the James Connolly Memorial Hospital. Nobody can stand over this situation and everybody, including myself and my union members, stands indicted by it.
My members would say to me it is a disgrace we have put up with this. We have tried to do everything possible to exert pressure for the provision of alternative accommodation. In every case accommodation has been promised. It is like the snap apple — the more you push it the further away it goes. We have been given promises and told to stay in line, not to rock the boat and we will be looked after. We have had the same response tonight. I know the Minister's views on disability and know of his support and sympathy for the issue, but his speech does not deal with the issue. It is not any response to the needs of pupils going  to these locations, their parents or the society.
I have not had direct contact with the society who are dealing with this. I am aware of their work and congratulate them on it. If I were those people and listened here to words of thanks, gratitude and support I would walk out the door and leave. If people begin with words of thanks, it surely means there will be no signed cheque afterwards. The cheque should be handed over first and then they should be thanked. They are not being given any support. They are in a private house in Quarryvale. In 1978 they were told it was temporary but they are still there. Two or three months ago they were promised alternative accommodation near Milltown but it was given to somebody else.
I have received reports from the two schools. They are disgraceful. We all stand indicted on this matter. It does not give me any pleasure to say we have spoken to the teachers and they feel abandoned and deserted by the system. They have been given a job to do without being given the resources to do it, without the benefit of in-service education, specific training and learning and access to specific research. Our teachers are not being given the opportunity to give these kids a chance. That is the reality and those kids are simply being shepherded through the system. They are not getting the support to which they are entitled and how they come out at the other end will not reflect positively on the primary education system. I will not go any further on that except to say that we in the INTO will be taking action on this issue.
I want to make one addition to the point which was made about the two locations, which are 4.1 miles apart, according to my records. How can a principal run that school? How can there be contact there? I do not think it helps anybody's cause to say that the children with emotional difficulties are being looked after while the children with autism syndrome are not. There are no winners in special education at primary level that I know of. Comparisons do  not help anybody. Nobody in primary education is being over-funded.
On the question of integration, I said at the beginning of my contribution that there are 33,000 pupils who are not receiving any help and are not involved in the system of special education and support. Working on an average ratio of 12: 1, that would require approximately 2,700 teachers in order to give those pupils teaching support only. That is a huge level of State investment. If those children were not to be dealt with in special schools and classes but were to be integrated into ordinary classes — I use the word ordinary advisedly, I am just talking about the local national schools — it would require even larger investment. If it can be done, we will support it.
I am supporting both the amendment and the motion. This is the beginning of a debate. There will be much talk about this area and I can assure the society, the teachers and the pupils that we in the INTO will be supporting them until they get that to which they are entitled.
Mr. Crowley: I am speaking in support of the motion. I thank Senator O'Toole for opening up some opportunities for me to get further into this debate and also for being so afraid of my presupposed criticism that he was already covering himself.
The motion has opened a can of worms, as far as I can see. Unfortunately, — or perhaps fortunately some people would say — I have no direct contact or involvement with somebody who suffers or whose child suffers from autism. I will be approaching this from an angle based on my experiences as a person with a disability and some of the special education needs which I required. There is a parallel between the two situations. I will be speaking on the motion in a slightly abstract sense.
I congratulate the Minister of State because I know from several discussions with him that he has a unique and in-depth understanding of the problems here. The motion calls on the Minister  for Education to recognise the problems and to make provision accordingly. There are two strands to this motion which it is important to understand. The Minister of State in his speech stated that at school age, a child with autism requires an education suited to his or her assessed needs and he laid out four types of possible educational provision — an ordinary national school with the support of a remedial or resource teacher; a special class in an ordinary national school; a special school for children with a mental handicap and, the most controversial, a special school for children with emotional and/or behavioural disorders.
We all understand that there is no system which will suit everybody. Therefore, a range of services and resources has to be provided in this context. I have also heard much criticism of the two schools in Dublin — or to use Senator O'Toole's definition, the two locations in Dublin — where the services are at present being provided. It is upsetting and wrong that those are the conditions which prevail, yet before they were provided in 1978 many of these people would not have been getting any education and would possibly have ended up in institutions totally unsuited to their needs where they might have been the victims of a misdiagnosis of their problem. The question goes deeper than just dealing with children with autism and their education needs. It requires a review of what the education system should provide for people with disabilities, those who suffer from specific syndromes and students with learning disabilities.
Half of my education took place in the so-called ordinary system. For the other half I had special needs because of my disability. Integration in the Hamilton High School in Bandon, where I went to secondary school, was essential to my personal development and to my acceptance of my disability. At the same time, I understand that there will always be a requirement for special sheltered education — if sheltered is the right word, I may be wrong in using that word — special remedial facilities and one-to-one teaching in some circumstances.  However, this can be part of an overall service.
The most important thing is to ensure that the integration takes place at the earliest possible age. It is important not only for the children with the disability — be it a specific syndrome, a learning disability or a physical disability — but it is also important that the other children involved within the integrated class have a greater understanding. Let us never forget that prejudices towards people with disabilities and people who are different stem not from children themselves but from adults. Those prejudices are passed from adults to children. If the barriers and prejudices can be overcome at the earliest possible age, there is a hope for a better future for all of us. I understand Senator O'Toole's point that every INTO document on this subject calls for resources, resources and more resources.
Mr. Crowley: Every time that Senator O'Toole stands up to speak about this topic, not only in this Chamber but also in other fora in which I have heard him, he says that they need more resources, that they will quite happily provide the services if they get more resources. The problem is that there are resources available at present which are not being utilised because the INTO claims that they are not enough to provide the services. Let us try it on a test basis first to make sure that this system works. The best system is a schedule within each school whereby a certain section is for integrated education, another is for remedial education and a third section is for the extra specialised education which is needed.
Mr. Crowley: I was disheartened by some of the comments and reactions from Members on the other side of the House, although their hearts are in the right place. Senators would say there is a need for the Minister for Education to recognise and make provision for special educational needs. If we focus on the positive rather than the negative side of the argument, we might be able to achieve more.
Mr. Crowley: There is background and backdrop. Our Constitution guarantees the right to education. That right is fully supported by the Department of Education, the Minister for Education and the Minister of State at the Department of Education. There is no point adopting a single plan for the Irish Wheelchair Association, who want services for young children, the Irish Society for Autism, the deaf and blind association, etc. There is a need for integration, not only between the people with special needs and the so-called mainstream students, but also between the different groups in the special needs area. There is a need for greater understanding.
Before I came into the Seanad I thought I knew a lot about disabilities. When I came into the House I discovered my ignorance in regard to blindness, autism, mental handicaps and learning  disabilities. It is an educational process for us as well as the special students. I support the motion.
Mr. Dardis: This is the second week we have more people offering than we have time for and this matter should be considered by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. We need more time for these important debates. I would like to share my time with Senator Doyle.
Mr. Dardis: I share some of the distaste which has been expressed by Senator McGennis and others about the tone of the debate, but it must be stated that this is a political institution and the Government is accountable to it. We have an attitude which suggests that Parliament is irrelevant and that these decisions can be made in the offices of the Taoiseach and Government Ministers, without reference to the House. This is where we decide and this is what we were elected to do. We are a political institution and we make no apology for conducting our affairs in a political way. It is irrelevant whether the amendment is good or bad. If it is ruled in order it is relevant and we speak about it.
I am fortunate to come from County Kildare where excellent services are provided for people with mental disability. Care for the mentally handicapped is provided by the St. John of God Brothers and the Camphill Community. They are providing a service on behalf of the State through the voluntary contributions of the people in County Kildare. They are absolving the Government of its solemn responsibility to those with handicaps. I have heard them described by the chairman of CARE in County Kildare as “daoine le Dia” or “God's people”. We should remind ourselves of the value they can bring to us who are more fortunate.
The Minister has made much of the fact that this Government has allocated £217 million for services for the mentally handicapped. I must congratulate him. I  assume this figure embraces the education and health budgets which amount to billions of pounds, yet the Government has allocated £217 million. We agree our economy is bound by lack of resources and that Government action is therefore limited. However, that is not the issue. The issue is where the resources will be allocated. One of the reasons the resources have not been allocated to this sector in the way they should have been is that the people involved have been silent. Often people who are disadvantaged are not able to speak for themselves. The parents of these children and young adults are responsible people who do not make the fuss others do for their sectoral interests. As a result, they have suffered, not only under this Government, but under other Governments as well.
In a recent editorial in The Leinster Leader a reference was made to the fact that damage is being done to children with disabilities because they are unsuitably placed in mainstream classes. This is not an acceptable statement. This is a matter of fundamental choice. If people with Downs Syndrome children or children with autism choose to send those children through the mainstream education system, that choice should be respected. That choice has been upheld by the High Court. When will the Government deliver on that judgment so as to ensure that those young people who wish to be part of the greater society and who can enrich that society are allowed to pursue their education through that system?
Reference has been made to the training of experts. We need psychologists. If this Government is to be consistent with the commitments made at the outset of this administration, it is now time to deliver.
Mr. Doyle: I thank Senator Dardis for his time. As a Member of the Seanad and the Eastern Health Board, I visited Drumfirth with Senator Roche and I became conscious of the problem of autism. I, like Senator Crowley, suffer from a handicap. In fact, autism and my  own handicap were associated with Rose Week recently. My problem is often related to a mental handicap, which it is not. The Department of Education treats autism as a mental handicap, although it is not. The Department's attitude should change in this regard and it should give support to parents who have children with this problem. Pressure is often put on parents whose children have a handicap. They should get every support from the health boards, the Department of Education and the Department of Health to help them overcome the problem in their lives.
Mr. Roche: At one stage the debate seemed to go off the rails. Of course, this is a political institution and political points will be made. I am not suggesting that the bona fides of any contribution made here should be questioned. However, I wish to make two points. First, the motion is specific. I said it should be drafted in specific terms because there is a specific issue which needs to be addressed. Secondly, I was surprised the amendment was accepted as being in order because it is a debate for a different day and one which deserves the fullest amount of time.
I welcome the compassion shown here tonight and the fact that there has been a two hour debate for the first time on this issue in either House of the Oireachtas. Therefore, we have made progress. I welcome the compassion shown by Members and, in particular, by the Minister and the Minister of State. The Minister must lead his Department further in this matter. I suggest to the Minister of State and the Minister that there really is not a huge gulf to be bridged here.
The Minister in his contribution here and his reply in the Dáil last night dealt with the issue in a way which is causing difficulties for the Irish Society for Autism. The Minister himself was fulsome in his recognition of the contribution of that society in this area. These are the people who can tell us something about what needs to be done.
The Department of Education, through several administrations, has  resisted requests and demands to view the mixing of children with autism and those with severe emotional disturbance as a mismatch. I am familiar with the letter read by Senator Henry which suggested in eloquent but very simple terms that this was trying to put square pegs in round holes. It is a gross misplacement to put a child suffering from autism and a child with a severe emotional disturbance in the same class. I do not believe that either can be adequately treated or educated in those circumstances.
The only quibble I would have with anything said by the Minister is the reference to the notorious clause D, which mentions a special school for children with emotional and/or behavioural disorders. This does not satisfy the need and that is the nub of the difference and the issue which separates the society and the Department.
I would not for a moment question Senator Cotter's bona fides on this issue. Of course he is right to question Government and harass both parties in Government about funding because that is the task he has on that side of the House. The task which we have on this side of the House is to answer just criticism. The issue tonight is not one of criticism but of principle. It is an issue which should not have to be discussed at all. It is the very special requirements of a very special group of children.
It would be a tragedy if the House divided on this issue. We need to take this issue and speak to the administrators, who are not uncaring people. The people in the Department of Education care as much about every special child as we do. We need to say in a unified way to the Department of Education through the Minister of State that this House wishes the Department to recognise, as has been done in other Departments and elsewhere, that mixing autism and emotional behaviour or disturbance is not the correct approach.
As far back as 1981 in the United States, after volumes of documentary evidence which deal with the destructive effect of misplacement of the autistic  child, the Senate took a decision on 16 January which singled out autism as a separate syndrome or category. The Senate specifically removed autism from the category of severely emotionally disturbed and that is what the Irish Society for Autism wants to do.
We did not come here to talk about whether election promises were honoured. Issues of finance will be debated fully on another night. We should send a clear and unequivocal message to the Department of Education, the Minister and Minister of State that this House wishes on a unified basis that the special needs and special category of autism be recognised and not combined in an ill-advised way with any other category.
I was reminded as I came here tonight that the cost to the Eastern Health Board per person suffering from challenging behaviour in institutional care amounts to £115,000 per year. Unless we make the distinction and deal appropriately with autistic children we will condemn people who, in the later stages of their life, do not need to spend their lives in inappropriate institutions to doing just that. This is a tragedy.
Even if we were heartless people, which nobody on any side of this House is, and we only measured concern in terms of money, we should surely realise that the misappropriate treatment of children with autism ultimately costs the taxpayers of this State dearly. Some 50 per cent of children with autism who are appropriately treated will move on to a situation where they can, with degrees of assistance, be independent. We should focus all our attention on ensuring that those children have appropriate attention.
I ask the House not to divide. I accept what Senator Dardis says; we are a political House but I do not think we are  divided on this issue. It is accepted that something needs to be done. I do not think a great amount separates the sides.
It is unfair to pose a question to the Minister but I will be unfair because this is an issue which moves me. I ask the Minister if it would be possible for him, the society and his senior people to sit down and iron out this last issue of difference. The Department of Education has a wealth of experience. I sought to acknowledge that and the society has acknowledged it. What the society wants is access to the Department and the expertise, care and years of experience that exist there.
This House could help greatly if we were to adopt this motion without division. I know, twisting his arm as I am, that the Minister will use his good offices and I ask, on behalf of the Members of this House but more importantly on behalf of the parents and children involved, that we resolve the issue. Could we make progress, sit down and have a discussion to resolve this issue?
Mr. Roche: I thank the Minister for that. The two hour debate has been more than worth while. I commend the motion. I certainly will not be voting for the amendment and I hope it is not pressed. I ask that the amendment should not be pressed so we can, without cluttering the issue with politics, simply endorse what to me — and I am not an impartial judge in this matter — is a proposition beyond politics. It is a proposition which deals compassionately with a principle and it commends itself.
|Belton, Louis J.
Cotter, Bill. Farrelly, John V.
|Cregan, Denis (Dino).
Enright, Thomas W. Naughten, Liam.
Ross, Shane P.N.
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