Specialised autism units are becoming staple features in primary schools across the country, The Clare Herald visited the Acorns class at Scoil na Maighdine Mhuire to see how much the children benefit from such a system.
Acorns is a Autism Specialised Disorder (ASD) unit that allows for primary school pupils at Scoil na Maighdine Mhuire, Newmarket-on-Fergus with the condition learn at a level that they’re capable as of opposed to having less attention in a mainstream setting. A maximum of six children are enrolled in the class to ensure they get the necessary focus.
An increase in children presenting with ASD diagnoses in the catchment area inspired the creation of Acorns. The school were approached by the Special Educations Needs Organisation to open a pre-school or mainstream autism unit but with a pre-school class already on site it was felt opening a mainstream class would best serve the school community.
At present fifteen percent of hours in a school week are dedicated to resource for a child diagnosed with autism as set out by the Department of Education. Aswell as this the children were not guaranteed access to a Special Needs Assistant (SNA). This served as another motivating factor for Scoil na Maighdine Mhuire to do more for their students than the Department would cater for.
Principal Ann McMahon admits when the idea first arose that she began to question if they were giving pupils in the school the best service they could. “An increasing number of children from our own catchment area were presenting with autistic spectrum disorder diagnoses and we were saying ‘are we catering for these children in the best possible way that we possibly can’ by having a little bit of resource teaching time one to one and maybe access to an SNA who might be shared with other pupils and we sort of said ‘you know what we’re not really doing the best that we can possibly do’ so I suppose that’s where the impetus came from”.
Subsequent to the approach from SNEO, there was a reflection process from all involved in the school which saw them visit other primary schools with ASD classes as they aimed to educate themselves as best they could. Eventually they decided to press ahead with class, the support of the school community plus the fact that there were spare rooms in the existing building helped with the decision.
While they did have space initially, Ann admits that they have applied for an extension to build a sensory room but she has been left disappointed with the Department of Education.
“We subsequently applied for an extension to build our sensory room and we’ve been turned down to do that and I’m disappointed that is the case but that won’t stop me from continuing to try to find a way when we can have a purpose build sensory room for the children, we have a sensory room at the moment but it’s not ideal in that we can’t blacken out the room and have it in darkness if we need to have it that way but that fight will go on”.
Class teacher Maria Kelly paid tribute to the fundraising work done prior to the opening and since then. “We wouldn’t have been able to put in any of the therapies that we have only for the fundraising by Susan and Darragh Commane they organised the golf classic, we were beneficiaries of the Pakie Ryan Run, Newmarket Celtic held a fun day aswell so only for that even the equipment we have we wouldn’t have a lot of it only for the fundraising that’s gone on”.
According to McMahon, Acorns has been a response to the needs of the community. When word got out about its opening they were inundated with requests and reveals there is a waiting list in operation for places in the class. “The idea is children will be part of the school community but they have the individual teaching, there’s only six in that class, they’ve three adults a teacher and two SNA’s so their specific care needs are really catered for and yet they have the opportunity to integrate into the mainstream classes for activities at an appropriate time for them, they’re not being flung in at the deep end from day one, they can integrate gently which is a much better way for the children to be able to do that”.
Not only are the students and parents of the Acorns class benefitting but the principal highlights that everyone in the school has been influenced by the ASD unit. “This is almost like a cocoon that the children can feel really safe in and they can venture outside their comfort zone into the mainstream classroom at a time when they’re ready so the children in the mainstream classroom benefit because their teacher can focus a lot more time on their particular needs and the teacher in the ASD classroom is benefitting because she has her small group with her two SNA’s supporting the work that she does and she can tailor the integration opportunities for her children individually for those children rather than in reverse which is where the poor child in the mainstream class who has the diagnosis of ASD has to be taken out into a resource teaching situation”.
Key to its success is the work of class teacher Maria Kelly as Ann McMahon highlights. I’m very fortunate because I have a very committed class teacher and SNA’a, she’s there at almost the crack of dawn and she’ll be there until it’s dark at night preparing for the children and they’re like her own children, I’m sure she dreams about them and worries about them when they’re not here and she loves her job and she is just so motivated and such a good teacher”.
In education outlets just like this learning is central to everything. A whole new brand of learning is now taking place at Scoil na Maighdine Mhuire according to McMahon. “We have learned about patience, compassion and about the different ways in which people learn and about trying to understand where somebody else is coming from and trying to understand the way somebody else might be thinking. It’s a learning opportunity aswell not just for the children in the Acorns class but for us all to learn about the different ways in which people learn and I think anything that helps with understanding, compassion and understanding disability and difference, anything that does that is good and I think we’ve certainly think we’ve done that in our school”.
Maria gathered as much information on possible on the condition when she discovered she would be teaching the class. “When you’re studying in college you do a certain amount on special needs education so then when I found out I was going to be teaching in the autistic class I did a few courses over the summer and I was doing training as the year went so I availed of any training opportunity that was offered to me during the year to try and upskill and be as prepared as I could for the year ahead”.
As with most occupations there are challenges for Kelly but the Shannon woman says they’re all worthwhile in the end. “There’s definitely challenging days, some days are better than others but that’s it any job really, definitely the reward outweighs the challenges you face, everyday is a huge learning opportunity for us all and we learn as much from them as they learn from us”.
Styles of teaching sometimes need to be adapted depending on the audience. Ann recalls a powerful discussion she had with Maria. “Everybody has preconceived notions about autism and around rigidity of thinking etc and certainly that’s an aspect of it but there’s a whole lot more to be considered, these are children who just learn differently that’s all there is to it, if they can’t learn the way we teach then we have to teach the way that they learn and I remember Maria Kelly the class teacher saying that to me one day and I thought it was really powerful”.
The wheel has come full circle for the school as they now have members of staff from other schools coming in and getting as much information to see if opening an ASD class would work for them and what is needed to do that. “It’s good to be able to spread the message, there is nothing to fear we weren’t afraid, I would say we were a little bit anxious about doing right because you’d want to be able to do it right for everybody. Nobody should be afraid about the setting on an ASD class in a mainstream school setting, it’s a wonderful opportunity to change lives and you know what I actually thought it was the little children’s lives that were being changed by what we were doing and it is but it’s also our lives that are being changed by it too because we’re learning from them”.
All those in the school on such visits are encouraged by Ann to open a class. Looking down the line she says they are hopeful of opening a second ASD class. “Yes we hope to open a second class, we’re not ready to do it yet and I think the reason we’re not ready to do it yet is we want to embed practice at the moment just let it settle so that it really is an embedded part of the school. We’ll decide in another year or two that it’s the right time to open a second class”.
Awareness is increasing in relation to autism and Maria feels this is very positive. “It’s out there in the media, you hear stories of children who can’t get into ASD classes who are on a short-day in a mainstream classroom and when you look at the children in your classroom you know there’s no way they’d cope with the noise and the daily life of a mainstream classroom, the skills that they need to learn before they’re able to go into that environment and without the early intervention that may not happen for some of them”.
‘Each one working for the good of all’ is the motto in Scoil na Maighdine Mhuire with Acorns it’s about planting small seeds that grow into great oaks. In conversation Ann McMahon said opening Acorns was “the best thing we ever did”, from our visit the compassion of the staff and students towards those class plus the enjoyment evident on the faces of the children in the ASD class show that Ann certainly has a point.
Gallery of photos by Gary Collins