To ignore the needs of children with autism risks creating a mental health time bomb in Northern Ireland, a leading teacher has warned.
Susan Thompson, vice principal of Hart Memorial Primary in Portadown and President of the Ulster Teachers’ Union, made the claim recently at an autism lobbying event in Stormont.
“Education is the most powerful weapon in changing the world today,” she told an audience made of MLA’s and representatives from the Department of Education, autism charities and the Education Authority.
“Equality and inclusion are what is driving this debate. There should be no more segregation and discrimination against children.
“If we are to tackle the rising tide of failing statistics which dog our country then it’s time we brought nurturing back to the classroom.
“Northern Ireland has the highest rate of poor mental health among young people yet mental health charity Young Minds NI states that teachers are struggling to support the needs of children with complex emotional, behavioural and learning needs - including autism.
“The diagnosis of autism is on the rise here. Autism NI’s most recent research indicates that the increase has trebled in some areas.
“Now one in every 30 children has a diagnosis yet schools still don’t have the resources, nor teachers the training, to cope.
“The result is that children are suffering. Action must be a priority for the coming school year.
“Teachers often spend more hours per day with children than their parents, therefore teaching staff must be up skilled with specific strategies and classrooms resourced adequately.
“If we ignore what is happening in our schools now, then we are to blame when the rise in poor mental health and well-being continues to grow among young adults in the future.
“I have been teaching for 17 years and a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator for the last three so I know the struggle teachers and classroom assistants face if they haven’t been able to understand when a child with autism is over stimulated by noise, by peers around them or maybe due to the classroom routines.”
She added, “In order to teach well, set, meet and exceed high academic and pastoral care goals, teachers need essential training to support children with autism.”