Department of Education holds ‘lingering animosity’ to ABA Autism Education
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To the parents of autistic children present in the Dail last night, the defeat of a Fine Gael motion on the funding of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) education for autistic children was as predictable as it was devastating. Few government TDs bothered to listen to debate and but the necessary numbers appeared when it was time for the government to re-affirm its commitment to denying children access to a therapy and education that qualified professionals had decided they needed. However one government TD grabbed a few headlines today largely because her comments in the Dail contrasted sharply with the way in which she voted on the Fine Gael motion.
Mary O’Rourke may have voted against the Fine Gael private member’s bill, but she spoke out against the department for education for its thoroughly odd attitude to ABA education. O’Rourke stated that ‘it is my feeling that there is a lingering animosity and a sort of a blockage at some level within the Department of Education against the full blooded provision of ABA’. These comments are particularly telling given that the government backbencher used to to be the Minister of Education and that the comments were delivered shortly after the Department of Education forced a Cork based ABA school to discontinue the provision of education through a comprehensive ABA approach.
One problem that the parents of autistic children have continually spoken about is the waiting list that exists for receiving a diagnosis from a department approved expert. While there are many experts in the country capable of making a diagnosis, the government only recognises the judgments of the few it pays. The judgment of an independent psychologist is ignored by the department and cannot be used in attempts to receive funding for urgently needed treatment or education.
In his judgment on the O’Cuanachain case, Justice Michael Peart also alluded to an existing perception that the department of education had a hostile attitude toward ABA education. When commenting on the attempts of a group of parents of autistic children to acquire funding for an ABA education project he stated:
The Court is left to wonder why there was such coyness about saying to the Department exactly what was being proposed, and to ask itself, only rhetorically of course, could it be that St. Catherine’s and those involved there in this project knew that a view was developing in the Department, or had been formed maybe, that the funding of exclusively ABA centres, such as had occurred in the past (on a pilot basis only according to them), might no longer be sanctioned, and that in making its proposal for funding it was thought advisable to make no mention whatsoever of ABA?
Indeed, the O’Cuanachain judgement offers us an interesting insight into the politics surrounding ABA provision in Ireland. Each side presented their experts and both sides agreed that ABA was useful for providing education to autistic children. However, the government’s experts claimed that it was only one of a number of techniques that should be used, while the defendants argued that the model proposed by the government was inadequate and that what the government was that the ABA provided under government models was insufficient and provided by those unqualified to provide it. The judge referred to the fact that there appeared to be a legitimate difference of opinion among experts, however it is important to note that the experts called by the plaintiff and the defendant had different areas of expertise. The ‘experts’ called by the government lacked expertise on the subject of ABA. One, Ms. Marie-Louise Hughes, admitted that he ABA experts called to give evidence regarding ABA on behalf of the plaintiff were more qualified than she is to speak about the content of ABA and how it is actually delivered. Another factor that all agreed upon was that there was little if any evidence to support the model of education endorsed by the department.
One has to wonder what the department of education is thinking. If all experts agree that ABA has been proven usefully in the empirical research and that it should be available to education providers when educating autistic children, then surely those in the best position to advise on the way ABA should be implemented would be ABA experts? As it stands, the ABA experts are uniformly of the opinion that what the government provides under the eclectic model is not ABA in any sense of the word. What the department of education is doing is the equivalent of ignoring the advice of heart surgeons on heart surgery and instead taking advice from GPs and dentists. Stupidity.
So what on earth could cause such stupid decisions to be taken? If you ask the parents of autistic children, they’ll usually refer to money. Some estimate that proper ABA provision costs up to 13,000 euro more per child per year. Given that the department of education once argued in court that special needs children were ineducable, it’s not hard to imagine that they’d try to wriggle their way out of providing autistic children with the education they need simply because it appeared expensive in the short term.
Clearly, there are questions to be asked of the Department of Education, but there was no way those questions were going to be answered last night. Minister for Education Mary Hanafin wasn’t even there for the vote having decided that perhaps it was a good time to leave the country. The parents of autistic children present in the Dail last night probably hope that she never comes back.