A Bandon husband and wife are at their wits’ end trying to find a school place for their son who has autism. They are now backing a new campaign to build a special needs school in West Cork
‘OUR son is being denied his right to full-time education, and the State is not meeting their obligation to educate a child with a disability.’
That is the feeling of Marcin and Marta Pikula, whose 16-year-old son Nicholas has not attended secondary school since October 2021, because he can’t find a place suitable to his needs.
Also parents to a 13-year-old boy, the couple moved here from Poland in 2004 and live in Bandon.
Nicholas was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, and with a borderline learning disability a few years later.
Having had positive experiences attending various national schools in West Cork, his challenges started at second level, and in trying to find an ASD unit where he could thrive.
He attended units in two secondary schools but Marcin says they weren’t compatible with what his son needed, on a range of different levels.
The first Marcin described as a ‘disaster’ and totally not suitable for his son’s needs. It caused him a lot of trauma.
‘The second unit was perfect. Our son had a chance to feel happy and supported there and made huge progress until the class size increased the next term.’
Their son couldn’t cope with the large class, having been comfortable in the more intimate environment before.
The couple then tried units in other schools in West Cork but there weren’t any available spaces and each had a long waiting list.
Since October 2021 he has been at home with only four weeks of home tuition for seven hours a week – for which the family must now re-apply.
‘Since the problems with schools started, his mental health was hugely affected and he developed anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
‘He is under constant care of Camhs (children and adult mental health services) in Dunmanway and the Brothers of Charity in Bandon.
‘He has been on various medications to help with his anxiety and sleep problems.
‘It helps in some ways, but also gives him a “brain fog” and few other side effects.’
The family are losing hope, they say they’re desperate.
‘His anxiety and depression levels are very high. He doesn’t want to go anywhere and stays in his room for most of the day thinking about his school and blaming himself all the time.
‘Sometimes he can’t sleep at night and he is having very dark thoughts. As you can imagine our family life is hugely affected by all this,’ said Marcin.
Marta is with her son almost 24/7, and it has an impact on her mental health as well.
‘Not to mention our younger son Victor who is quietly suffering through all that. His childhood is greatly affected by everything that is happening at home and he is not getting enough attention from us,’ said Marcin.
‘Thankfully, most of the time I can work from home, but sometimes it is not possible and I have to go to the office I’m renting just five minutes away, ready to get back home any minute if needed.
‘Our whole life is constantly focused around Nicholas and his needs, and we are totally exhausted at this stage.’
The couple are supporting the just-launched campaign to set up a special school in West Cork.
The campaign is being spearheaded by mums of primary school aged children with autism. They are aware that when their kids finish at primary level there’s no clear pathway of education for them in West Cork, or anywhere.
‘All Nicholas needs is a very small class and a lot of 1-1 time with a teacher. That worked really well in the second school – until the class size was increased.
‘We feel our child is discriminated and the whole situation is damaging for Nicholas’ health and well-being and for our family life.
‘Do we have to wait for a tragedy to happen before we get any help?’
The Pikula’s plight is similar to one that has been in the national spotlight recently.
The parents of 11-year-old twins, Kyle and Ryan Milne, who have autism and who had been denied appropriate schooling featured on a recent Prime Time special.
They were later contacted by the Minister for Special Education and told that their children will be given places in a special school.
Their dad said: ‘Our end goal was to get an appropriate school place that matches the boys’ needs and we have achieved that. Hopefully that opens the doors for all the other kids with special needs to get places in the appropriate settings for their needs.’
• To find out more, or to support the campaign for a special school in West Cork, email [email protected]
Parents no closer to securing an SNA for school in Ballydehob
PARENTS who say they have been forced to fundraise to finance the salary of a special needs assistant (SNA) themselves, after a refusal by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to provide one at Scoil Bhríde National School in Ballydehob, say they’re no closer to their goal.
Hannah Vaughan, whose daughter has autism, said she ‘wants people to be reminded of how badly this government is neglecting everyone in this country with additional needs.’
‘It starts with a lack of services when they are diagnosed and carries on with a lack of appropriate school places through primary and secondary, and then college just doesn’t exist,’ said Hannah.
She said they had amazing support for their fundraising tractor run earlier this year.
‘Because of that we managed to raise enough money to offset the school’s additional costs to ensure all the children are safe and supported throughout each school day.
‘While I am furious that we will have to continue next year to fundraise to pay for the extra SNA we need in Scoil Bhríde, I am also deeply grateful that we have the full support of the community and that my daughter Emily’s school works so hard to provide her and the other children with the supports they need to thrive,’ said Hannah.
Hannah and fellow parents have continued to push to be considered for the support they need from the NCSE.
‘But we have been told our only option is another appeal.
‘We have local TDs backing us but it seems that all our voices fall on deaf ears.’