Report of the Joint Committee on Autism

Report of the Joint Committee on Autism

Dep. Ó Cathasaigh:
I echo Deputy Buckley’s point that the committee worked very hard and in a collegiate fashion. Much of that is down to the Cathaoirleach, Senator Carrigy, who deserves great praise. We were very much supported by AsIAm in that work. We had an initial private session with Adam Harris at which we said all the things we were afraid to say in public session. We got to road test them and to discuss how we were going to talk sensitively and properly about this subject. It was great. When it came to the public sessions, we were on a firm footing because we already had that pattern established. It was a valuable exercise.

Probably the most powerful session we had was when the autistic self-advocates came and sat in the Seanad Chamber. It was a long and split session. We heard from people personally and that helped us travel a long way along the road to an autism-friendly Parliament. The apparatus of the Parliament had to prepare for the session. It stopped being theoretical. We said it was going to happen and asked what steps we needed to take. That was a useful and powerful session. I again congratulate Senator Carrigy on doing a good deal of the spade work in that regard. It was not an easy session to bring together. The entire secretariat did massive work, as did people across the Oireachtas.

I agree with Deputy Tully that recommendation 1 is front and centre. I would like to see an autism strategy that is updated every three years, because there is a worry. We got the report down off the shelf for this evening and I am glad that the Business Committee selected this report and has given it an outing. However, we want it to be a practical document. We want it to be dog-eared. We want it to be scribbled all over, just like the copy in front of me.

The second recommendation to which I want to draw attention is recommendation 6, to ratify the optional protocol of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities without delay. The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, is committed to doing that within the lifetime of the Government. Let us get on with it. I want to see it done.

In the context of disability services, recommendation 11 is pivotal. We have talked about there being no wrong door. For people with autism, however, it feels at times like there is no right door. Half of them are locked in the first place. The lack of clarity and joined-up thinking in respect of CAMHS and CDNTs is putting people in awful situations. We know that many autistic people also suffer with mental health issues. To say that we have decided which box people fit in and, therefore, deny them access to certain supports is not tenable. I do not think we can continue along those lines.

As a former primary school teacher, I homed in on the education aspect. There has been reference to children on reduced hours or children who have to be put into rooms. Not a single educator or school leader wants to be in that position.

When educators are forced down that road, it means they do not have the training or the resources to do what it is that they decided they wanted to do with their life, which is to educate and provide for children. While it is no fault of the teacher training courses, when I came out of teacher training I was not prepared to teach an autistic person, particularly in the real-life context of having 29 other children to reach in a given day. The reality is that I had to go through that process to really learn how to do that. We need to support teachers who find themselves in that situation. We need to make sure the training and resources are available because it is a difficult transition and a balance has to be struck between the needs of each individual child in a class and the needs of the classroom as a whole.

I also want to talk about recommendation No. 47, although time is short. This recommendation relates to the summer programme. We took this issue so seriously that we issued an interim report. It is critical for the children who need to maintain a sense of regularity of the summer period and for their parents. We have to work harder to ensure that continuity of service over the summer, accepting the need for teachers to have downtime. Of course, people need time away from the classroom but we need that continuity of care.

I could talk for many more minutes but the time has elapsed. I again thank Senator Carrigy and all of the members of the committee, which has produced a very valuable report.