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Teaching unions hit out at proposals to introduce mandatory autism training in Northern Ireland

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Rising numbers of families are seeking help for children with special educational needs (Danny Lawson/PA)

Rising numbers of families are seeking help for children with special educational needs (Danny Lawson/PA)

Rising numbers of families are seeking help for children with special educational needs (Danny Lawson/PA)

Northern Ireland's largest teaching union has hit out at proposals by MLAs to introduce mandatory autism training for teachers and classroom assistants.

MLAs called on Education Minister Peter Weir to address the needs of children with autism, which the Assembly heard weren't being met by schools.

But NASUWT accused MLAs of misrepresenting unions and failing to approach them on their view before debating the motion originally brought by the DUP's Pam Cameron and widely supported by cross-party MLAs in the Assembly.

Autism diagnosis has doubled in the past six years and Mrs Cameron said the vast majority of calls to the Autism NI helpline concerned education.

The motion was amended by Green Party MLA Rachel Woods, who said it had the support of teaching unions.

NASUWT National Official for Northern Ireland Justin McCamphill said: "We are disappointed that this motion was debated in the context of claims that the motion had the support of all teacher unions.

Mr McCamphill said he hoped MLAs would carry out a proper process of consultation before bringing forward any legislation.

"MLAs who spoke on the motion have not articulated what the nature of this training would be nor how it would be funded," he said.

"It is already the case that teachers are obliged to attend training during their normal working hours, the focus of the debate should be on ensuring that special needs are adequately resourced by the Department of Education," he said.

Ms Cameron said the Assembly's all party group on autism had engaged with teaching unions while looking at the proposal. She said she welcomes the view of all stakeholders.

"There would obviously be many details to be resolved during this process, including the resourcing of such an initiative. However, I would hope that everyone can be supportive of the principle that such training would be hugely beneficial," she said.

"I would pay tribute to the work of Autism NI in helping highlight the issue and it is something that I would hope we can see delivered through the Assembly."

In response to the comments from NASUWT, Ms Woods said the motion was a call to provide additional support for children with autism and improve their educational outcomes and experiences.

"The amended motion was supported by the Assembly and had been informed by autism charities and teaching unions via the work of the All Party Group on Autism.

"I’m happy to have further engagement on how we work with the Department for Education to take forward this Assembly Motion."

But the Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) has said they support the motion, saying they've lobbied against what they described as a "mental health time bomb" and crisis for children with an autism diagnosis.

""One in every 30 children has a diagnosis yet schools still don’t have the resources, nor teachers the training, to cope.," said union president Susan Thompson, who is also vice principal and special needs coordinator at Hart Memorial Primary in Portadown.

"The result is that children are suffering. Action must be a priority for the coming school year."

Ms Thompson called for teaching staff to be upskilled with specific strategies and resources.

"If we ignore what is happening in our schools now, then we are to blame when the rise in poor mental health and well-being continues to grow among young adults in the future," she said.

Ms Thompson said she understands the struggle teachers and classroom assistants face when they struggle to understand a child with autism when they are over-stimulated by noise or classroom routines.

"Specialist training must be available and adequately funded for all teachers across the province," she said.

Not providing this support would be one of the most cynical acts of neglect any government could inflict on its most vulnerable yet most precious resource, its children," she said.

DUP MLA Pam Cameron has been approached for a comment.

Belfast Telegraph