ABA & the Dept. of Education

This is an area in which I have developed an interest, not on technical grounds but more because the provision of ABA within the education system is a topic that has come up on the campaign trail in every election that I have fought.

The zeal with which the Department of Education appears to have (a) fought the efforts of parents to secure what they believe to be the most appropriate education model for their loved ones through the Courts and (b) moved to peel back any commitments/resourcing to ABA school in favour of their own ‘mixed-bag’ model is beyond belief.

Brian Cowen should move the Dept of Education to the Dept of Finance and encourage these Zealots to apply their crucifixational skills to cleaning up our financial instititutions.

In this society the strong should protect the weak – not exploit them to their own cynical ends.

The Irish Times – Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dehumanised and broken, but we won’t betray our beloved son with silence

OPINION: My family endured hell in our autism education battle and I just want to know why, writes YVONNE Ó CUANACHÁIN 

WHY DID the Department of Education do it? It’s a question we’ve been asked many times since the conclusion of our son Seán’s case in the Supreme Court at the end of June.

Attempting to answer that question by writing this piece is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I sought the advice of close family who witnessed first hand the trauma and hurt we suffered in the past six years battling to access the ABA schooling Seán needs. [Applied Behaviour Analysis is the application of the principles of learning and motivation from behaviour analysis.]

Many advised against writing this, lest it ‘bring the department down on Seán again’ and while that might have seemed an easier path, I felt leaving the question unanswered would present a greater threat to Seán and all children depending on the department to look after their best interests.

Surviving the past six years at times seemed an impossible task. In the early days we continuously asked ourselves what had we done to deserve such treatment at the hands of the department. At the end of each day in court, we invariably left feeling dehumanised and broken.

I don’t know how we could have coped had we known at the outset that the ordeal would be extended to 68 days over seven long months of aggression.

As the situation outside the courtroom unfolded it quickly became clear to us that the department were using Seán for their own ends.

I never believed that the department could be so consumed with concern for Seán that they would expend many millions and send an army of civil servants to the courts daily, just to impose their preferred method of education on one child.

It was terrifying to walk into that courtroom every day knowing we were powerless in the face of the department who seemed so determined to mislead the court as to their real agenda and which at times appeared out of control.

In hindsight, it is unfortunately now clear that Seán was simply unlucky to be the next case to come along and he became an unwitting pawn in the department’s wider agenda. Their casual cruelty in using Seán to further that agenda is something I can neither forgive nor forget.

When we raised this concern to the court, the department repeatedly and, I believe, duplicitously, assured the court that they were only there because of Seán. Outside the courtroom, rumours abounded that the department were refusing to expand any ABA schools until Seán’s case was heard.

Many believed this case was being used by them to decide the future of ABA education here but also to intimidate parents of children with special needs who would seek access to the courts to vindicate their child’s right to an appropriate education.

In my experience, the department’s lingering animosity towards ABA motivated an unprecedented concentration of State resources on one small child. So why would the department waste millions of euro and thousands of man hours over six years to ensure that one small boy would have their option of education imposed against the will of his parents?

Why then would they eventually agree to conclude the case in the Supreme Court with the parents’ evidence that Seán was in fact receiving that exact ABA education they were so hell-bent on withholding from him, and had been all along?

The only plausible explanation for this is that the case was never really about Seán at all, that Seán was only ever a means to an end and that all along the department had their eyes on a bigger prize.

Following the conclusion of Seán’s case some commentators expressed the hope that Seán’s case had moved things forward for other children.

However, the real agenda was revealed when – only days after the conclusion of Seán’s case in the Supreme Court – letters issued from the department to the ABA pilot schools instructing them to abandon ABA schooling in favour of the department’s preferred eclectic method.

In fact if the department intend to withdraw ABA schooling from all children with autism who need it, then its possible that they are already deciding how to withdraw it from Seán and we will have no option but to return to the courts yet again to protect his welfare. Although such a prospect fills me with terror, the alternative for Seán is unthinkable.

If it is the case that a Government department has cynically exploited a severely autistic child, misleading the court in doing so, then that is a department that has lost all sight of what it exists to achieve.

If it is the case that a small number of senior civil servants have been facilitated in their agenda by successive ministers of education from Mary Hanafin on, that is a very sinister prospect for all children in the State.

Breaking through the code of silence that surrounds the Department and shining a light on its darker recesses will hopefully help to change things for the better in the future.

Further silence would have been a betrayal of Seán and an implicit acceptance that what he endured at the hands of the department was in some way acceptable. If we cannot talk about it, it cannot be.

Yvonne Ó Cuanacháin is the mother of Seán Ó Cuanacháin, who has autism, and with her husband was involved in one of the longest running High Court cases in legal history over the right to appropriate education, or Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), for him