Students with Autism Left “High and Dry” Wondering Where They’ll Go to School in the Fall

UPDATE: After much deliberation, Devin and Oisin have both been allowed to stay at Cedar Lodge for another year.

Education is important for all students, but it may be particularly important for students with autism, who need consistency in their schedules and dedication from their teachers in order to thrive in a classroom environment. But it seems some students on the autism spectrum are being left behind as the school system struggles to find a suitable place to put them.

Some students with autism who currently attend Cedar Lodge, in north Belfast, Ireland, have been left wondering where they’ll attend school in the fall. It seems this issue is due in part to the fact that an important Education Authority (EA) position for an education transition co-ordinator has been vacant since March of 2020.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Tom Wang

The education transition co-ordinator position is meant to help students with special educational needs and their parents plan their future in terms of education and job training. There are two such positions in the Education Authority, but one of them has gone unfilled for more than a year. With no one to fill that position, students with autism and special needs have fallen through the cracks.

Heather North’s 16-year-old son, Devin, is set to graduate from Cedar Lodge on the 18th of June.

“On that day, he’s meant to give a presentation, on where he’s going to and what he’ll be doing, to his peers,” says Heather. “He has nothing to say.”

After that, she says, he doesn’t know where he can go to continue his education, and the fear of the unknown has taken its toll on his mental health.

Photo: Adobe Stock/motortion

“I can feel the anxiety starting to ratchet up, I can see his mood becoming a lot less stable. I can see his mental health suffering,” she says. “His self-image is dropping significantly due to all the uncertainty, and this has been going on since January so it’s been six months of people saying we don’t know.”

Despite his autism, Devin has always done well academically. He was put in a mainstream primary school but was eventually removed after suffering from anxiety and bullying there.

“We moved to Cedar Lodge for his first year of post-primary, and Cedar Lodge was good because it did mainstream education but in an environment for children with Devin’s issues,” says Heather.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Brian

Devin has been happy at his new school and hasn’t experienced any bullying, but he has to move on now that he’s almost 17 years old.

Now, his mother says, he’s been left “high and dry” waiting to hear if any schools in the area will accept him and not getting any help from the Education Authority.

“He’s been turned down by one mainstream school,” she says. “There’s discussions with another, but we’re at the eleventh hour and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen.”

And Devin is not the only student going through this “soul-destroying” waiting period. Jackie Cosgrove’s son, Oisin, is also ready to leave Cedar Lodge but doesn’t have another place to go.

Photo: Adobe Stock/JackF

“He’s quite academically capable, he’s bright, he’s articulate, he’s got a cracking sense of humour. He’s really droll,” Jackie says. “He’s a great kid, and he deserves every chance he can get, but we have to fight for it.”

Jackie says roughly five other young people at the school are in the same position, and it has eroded their self-confidence and made a waste of their brilliant minds.

“These kids are caught between a rock and a hard place,” she says. “Our kids want to go on to further education […] The EA have a duty of care to provide him with an education.”

We hope, for the sake of these amazing students, that a suitable place is found for them soon.

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