Inclusion, what inclusion?

I was at a meeting about Transition Year at my son's school last night. But of course not all of you will know what that means, so it's definition time again...

Transition Year is the Irish education system's answer to the Gap Year except it takes place between the two sets of state exams during the secondary school years. It's a bit like Marmite, some love it, some hate it, and that's just the parents.

It's also compulsory at my son's school, and there was a lot of interest in the meeting. This isn't a fancy well-equipped school in a leafy suburb, it's in the inner city and caters mainly for teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it does not resemble the typical media portrayal of inner city schools. They mostly seem to feature disinterested parents, exhausted teachers and feral teenagers. My son's school couldn't be more different. and last night the room was packed with parents and their children; extra chairs were pushed into every corner to accommodate all the people who turned up. The teachers are mostly young, and they are all enthusiastic and passionate about education and committed to getting the best out of the boys in their care. As for the boys, well I defy you not to be impressed. Despite many of them living in very difficult circumstances, they were all well turned out for the meeting: nicely dressed, clean shaven, smart hair cuts.  They sat quietly and attended to the presentations. They didn't interrupt, but asked intelligent questions at the end about the plans for year, which include studying more than 30 subjects, project work, a mini company, weekly work experience and career guidance, and a national award scheme that includes community work and sport.

If any of this this sounds patronising, I apologise. I'm just trying to show how the education system in Ireland does succeed and does make a difference, even in those schools that fall beneath the radar and don't appear in the league tables.

So why does the education system keep failing those on the autism spectrum, even schools like the one my son attends that are supposed to cater for them?

The clues are there. I thought about what I know about autism and realised that all those things I saw in the boys in the room can be very difficult for people on the autism spectrum. Sensory issues make haircuts and self care painful, classrooms and corridors overwhelming, smart clothes uncomfortable, where a well-washed track suit is not.

Sitting still for long periods can be hard.

Executive functioning difficulties mean that managing 30 different subjects and projects may seem impossible.

And even if they manage to deal with all these problems, they still have to navigate the social environment in the school and the community. All day they have to decode the words of other students and the pronouncements by teachers, which are currently squarely aimed at the majority in the class.

And once something is said, it cannot be unsaid, and all the reassuring messages in the world won't make you forget being told that ninety per cent attendance was required to get the Transition Year Certificate, and if you you didn't get the certificate you "may as well not do it."

My heart sank into my trainers when I heard that.

Autistics are literal thinkers, remember. And some of them struggle with regular attendance.

It's just another example of the disconnect between what schools provide and what autistic students need.

Anecdotally, many autistic teenagers who were looking forward to Transition Year as a break from the pressure of exams, found the new challenges even more difficult.

In most mainstream secondary schools in Ireland autistic pupils attend mainstream classes with a special needs assistant (if they're lucky) and sometimes it's like chucking them into the sea with a rubber ring and hoping they won't get mauled by a shark. Some schools also have an opt in asperger units where the pupils gather at break times or if they are sitting out a class, and a lucky few have units where the teaching takes place for those pupils who cannot cope with mainstream classes.

I do think that is the answer for some pupils. Because I'm wondering are mainstream schools and teachers willing and able to change everything about the way they do and say things to accommodate a small number of autistic pupils, or would it be better for those children to be educated separately, at least for a while? Of course this goes against the mantra of inclusion...

Real inclusion would require a complete mind change. The whole education system would need to be examined and all future policies disability proofed. I'd love to see that happen, and I hope it will, but it will be too late for my children. And I still believe that some children will never be able to cope with mainstream school, and there need to be options for them too.

It's back to the need to make the system fit the child, not the child fit the system. As it should be everywhere in life.


  1. To be honest with you, I had never heard of transition year until Jazzy Ville mentioned it at our meet up. I can certainly see how it could be a very difficult year for those on the spectrum. Good luck to you and your boy. I hope the year doesn't prove too tricky.

    1. All I can do is wait and see and try to provide the supports that I'm sure he will need x

  2. Brilliant post, well said. I had a meeting with Zak's school it is obvious that mainstream don't understand autism. Good luck with the transition xx

  3. Inclusion, integration, it's all such a big topic and it's so easy to go round in circles. I think the truth is that there is not just one easy answer, and it should all come down to the individual's needs, as you say, rather than trying to bend the one main system. Hugs to you, I know you will find the best way you can for your boy to manage this. x

  4. Ah yes, the 'system' just isn't a lateral thinker, which I guess is why most parents are. As Steph said, I know you'll find the way through this x

  5. As a parent of 2 autistic kids i feel your pain and understand where you are coming from, unfortunately the primary school system is also suffering from the same problems and even though there has been change in the schooling system for all disabilities, at times it's like taking 1 step forward followed by 2 steps back.
    A proper overhaul of our education system is required to help all our children with disabilities achieve a decent education and this should involve parents across the country who are willing to contribute instead of ministers/unions/teachers deciding what is the best approach to include all disabilities.
    The vast majority of these so called experts have no experience with the needs of special education and some are not interested as they regard these kids as extra work.
    If enough people lobbied their local TDs for change along with all the said organisations and charities then the government would have to make the necessary changes that are long overdue,just because a school cannot refuse a child based on disability does not mean that they will cater for his/her basic education needs and i have had plenty of experience on this matter with numerous schools.
    So lets call on our elected representatives to make the changes and also to RATIFY "The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, yes it's another of the things that need to be done, if only parents had more time! But we all do as much as we can.