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Mother sets up a school for autism

Parent of autistic child claims lack of resources forced her to open a private alternative. Felicity Waters reports

A mother of an autistic child says she has been forced to set up her own private school for children with the disorder because of a lack of specialist education in Wales.

Kaneez Mustary said treatment for children with autism was so poor that she had no choice but to take matters into her own hands. It took two years for her daughter Aurika, now 10, to be officially diagnosed with autism, and for more than three years she has been taught at home by her parents in Newport, Gwent.

"After she was diagnosed at five-and-a-half she was sent to a mainstream school, but she was kept behind for two years and we felt she was not getting the right education," said Mrs Mustary.

"We had so many problems that we decided we had no choice but to set up our own school, one that was tailored to meet the needs of individual children."

The plan comes as a damning report into special needs provision by the Welsh Assembly's education committee reveals a severe shortage of specialist staff like speech therapists and educational psychologists in Wales, as well as confusion over who has responsibility for services.

The private autism school, to be opened in Newport, is currently recruiting local teachers who will receive specialist training in applied behaviour analysis, an education programme which is widely used in America to treat autism.

Learning to interact with others, as well as basic social skills, are at the heart of the treatment which is one of many used to help children with the disorder.

Psychologists from New York and San Diego have already been recruited to train staff, and Mrs Mustary says parents are already calling from all over the UK to enrol their children for the pound;20,000 a year one-to-one tuition.

Children from three to 11-years-old will be catered for at first, but the new school's supporters hope they will be able to take pupils up to 18 in the future. Estyn estimates that one child in four will have a special or additional need at some time in their school life.

But a consultation exercise, carried out in schools by the Assembly's education committee, revealed that many parents found that seeking specialist advice and support for their child often proved to be a frustrating and distressing process.

Parents said that lack of funding and the shortage of specialist staff was a key issue, and that some children suffered unnecessarily due to their special educational needs being identified too late or missed altogether.

Education committee chair Peter Black said the issue needed to be seriously addressed, and though there was good practice to be found, it was not consistent across Wales. "We need more training places in Wales but we also need better joint working."

"Special needs provision is expensive but better workforce planning in health and education could overcome some of these problems. Local education authorities need to work together on a regional level to share the cost of provision."

The commitee report also cited Welsh language specialist provision as "chronic" and specialist staff as "overburdened".

Sara Hounsell, of the National Autistic Society Cymru, estimates there are around 26,000 people with an autistic disorder in Wales. She said services needed to be improved through more training and multi-agency working.

"There has to be a range of provision because every child is different.

Some will cope in a mainstream school with the right support but many will need specialist provision. Services for autism can't be done on a shoestring."

A spokeswoman for the Welsh Assembly government said staff shortages were being addressed through courses at postgraduate level and training opportunities within local education authorities. A task group has also been set up to look at the training of special educational needs co-ordinators and will be consulting on "professional development and opportunities to share best practice".

Both the health and education ministers are working together to improve the joint commissioning of services.

The regional model of joint working, championed by Mr Black, is already being piloted in the field of autism. A regional centre for children with the condition is being developed in north Wales, at Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn, Denbigh. It draws pupils from LEAs in north and mid-Wales, and beyond.

The school's new secondary department was officially opened last month by Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, who said she hoped it would be the first of many such projects catering for children with particular needs. The Assembly is contributing pound;2 million and a free site to the pound;5m-plus project.

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