4 Nov 2015

Parents tell of failure in special needs system

5:47 pm on 4 November 2015

There have been repeated incidents of severe shortcomings in the help for children with special needs such as autism, a parliamentary inquiry has heard.

The Education and Science Select Committee is investigating how schools identify and assist children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorders.

By Tuesday it had heard only a few of the submissions it had received, which total more than 400, but most depicted children and families struggling to get the help that they needed.

Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan told the inquiry some families homeschooled their autistic children because they found the school system too difficult.

But he had also heard anecdotes of autistic children who completely slipped through the cracks and did not get educated at all, he said.

Parent Chris Blewden had had a long, hard struggle getting help for his daughter, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, he told the committee.

His daughter was now 16 and he had been caring for her alone for the past six years.

"She hasn't got any social skills or communication skills because she hasn't left the house for three months."

His daughter should have been helped to develop those skills when she was much younger, he said.

"If she was taught that at the start, when she was first diagnosed at three - instead of having to run around like a headless chicken as a parent - if all this stuff was put on plate, then it would be a different story for parents."

Children with autism needed focused help from experts such as occupational therapists, special needs teachers, and speech therapists, Mr Blewden said.

"These individuals can get them up to mainstream level by teaching them ways to communicate, eye contact, socialising them into society, the list goes on.

"They can be mainstreamed once they have been taught the right skills to deal with life in general."

Therese Eberhard said she struggled for several years to have her daughter diagnosed with dyslexia.

"It's really hard to figure out where to get the help, and I think it needs to start with the diagnosis. That's one thing that's obvious."

Children with undiagnosed dyslexia were often put into the Reading Recovery programme, but that caused more harm than good, she said.

"They get put in this Reading Recovery, which is just totally traumatic for these kids. It's not the right kind of teaching for dyspraxia or dyslexia."

Comet Education Trust chief executive Susan Warren said she had asked parents and teachers in the city about special education.

"The biggest issue we had from everybody was the importance of early identification and doing something about that,

"What we're hearing from people is that children aren't always picked up early, that even when they are there isn't always an appropriate support available quickly."

Ms Warren said some families were paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to get help for their children, which raised questions about what happened with children from poor families.

Several submitters urged the government to adopt neuroplasticity programmes, which attempt to change the way the brain works by means of specific mental and physical exercises.

Among them was Jan Wigmore, who said her son had severe learning difficulties which included hyperactivity, auditory processing disorder and expressive language disorder.

"While our son received excellent support from his school and his local district health board, neither were aware of or equipped to provide the kind of therapy necessary to make our son's brain ready for learning.

"The school was providing a place for our son which was unsuited to him, assessing him against a curriculum which he could not access, and dooming him to regular, routine failure as he progressed through year levels."

Ms Wigmore's son had received help from four different neuroplasticity programmes, one of which costs $15,000 a year, she said.

Such programmes should be more readily available, she said.

The select committee's inquiry is continuing.

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