Autism Friendly Schools Project

Autism is neurodevelopmental condition characterised by differences in social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech, and nonverbal communication. Approximately 1 in 65 children in primary and post-primary schools in Ireland are recognised as autistic (Boilson et al., 2014). Under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), autistic children have the right to be fully included in mainstream educational settings, with individualised supports and accommodations in place to maximise their academic and social development at school. However, the provision of inclusive education for children with disabilities in Ireland (which includes autistic children) is not currently compliant with Article 24 of the UNCRPD (Murphy et al., 2023).

Prior research with teachers in Ireland indicates that substantial changes are needed before authentic inclusion of autistic pupils in the Irish education system can be achieved. In a recent survey of primary school teachers in Ireland (Leonard et al., 2022), only 10% of teachers (78 out of 780) held a positive attitude towards the inclusion of autistic children in mainstream classes; 66% believed that they did not have adequate resources to facilitate inclusion. A recent qualitative study explored Irish primary school teachers' perceived preparedness to teach autistic students and implement evidence-based practices (Barry et al., 2023). Teachers did not feel adequately prepared to teach autistic students and had limited knowledge of evidence-based practices.

However, these findings need to be contextualised within the wider educational culture of Ireland. Today, the educational provision for autistic students in Ireland is a topical issue, but there is a mismatch between the current narrative of inclusive educational policy and the increasing reliance on segregated special classes in Ireland, of which over 85% are designated for autistic children (Shevlin & Banks, 2021). Despite this, there is a lack of research examining the views and attitudes towards the inclusive education of autistic children amongst the wider school community in Ireland.

Internationally, there is an established literature base reporting on the attitudes of various stakeholders towards the inclusive education of children with disabilities, including parents and teachers (see de Boer et al., 2010 & 2011 for reviews). Several studies have examined attitudes in relation to the inclusion of autistic students specifically. In reviews of such studies, a common barrier to successful inclusion cited by parents, students, and educators was inadequate knowledge of autism (Roberts & Simpson, 2016). The literature also suggests that teachers hold more negative attitudes towards inclusive education than parents and students (Van Mieghem et al., 2020). Research is therefore needed to explore this issue from an Irish context.

This project aims to systematically investigate the experiences of autistic pupils in primary and post-primary schools in Ireland to identify implementable supports for inclusive educational policy and practice. Two central research questions underpin this project:

  1. What are the experiences of autistic pupils in primary and post-primary schools in Ireland?
  2. How does the wider school community view inclusion of autistic pupils in the Irish education system?

The first research question is being addressed through an ongoing study involving photovoice methodology and adapted interviews with autistic children (REC approval obtained under DCUREC/2023/023). The second research question will be addressed through an online survey incorporating validated scales to measure knowledge of autism and attitudes towards the inclusive education of autistic students; along with open-ended questions to capture important insights and identify implementable supports for inclusive educational policy and practice.

Research Team

Sinéad McNally
Sinéad McNally

Dr Sinéad McNally is the lead PI of this study and has overall responsibility for the project, including line management of the research team. Sinéad is a developmental psychologist with an established record of highly sensitive research with autistic children and their families including research with vulnerable young autistic children with substantial levels of need. Sinéad has published extensively on child development and is experienced in data management and archiving of sensitive quantitative and qualitative datasets. For example, Sinéad is a former Irish Research Council for the Sciences, Engineering, and Technology (IRCSET) Embark Initiative Scholar (2005-2009) for her doctoral research on interventions for minimally verbal autistic children during which she worked closely with young children with receptive and productive language difficulties and their parents. From this research, she was awarded a post-doctoral post (2009-2010) on an Irish Research Council funded project of infant siblings of autistic children and their early language development in the context of mother-infant dyads. Sinéad is currently supervising two funded PhD research projects at DCU investigating autism in educational contexts and is lead PI on an externally funded study of autistic play for inclusive education in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Sinéad was appointed the external expert advisor to the Research Ethics Committee at St Michael’s House services for persons with Intellectual Disability in 2020 and has led the teaching of research ethics in Early Childhood Education for over six years as part of her coordination of the dissertation modules on the Bachelor of Early Childhood Education at DCU.

Mary Rose Sweeney
Mary Rose Sweeney

Prof Mary Rose Sweeney is a Professor in the Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery in RCSI. Prof Sweeney has previously held the roles of Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Science and Health (2014-2017) and Head of School (2018-2022) in DCU. Over the past 25 years she has published a wide range of teaching, research, and community engagement initiatives nationally and internationally. Dr Sweeney has extensive depth of knowledge around autism from a health and science perspective.
For example, she was the lead investigator on the Irish arm of an EU project entitled Autism Spectrum Disorders in the EU (asdeu) which was the largest programme of research ever undertaken in the EU on autism and involved researchers from 12 countries. Dr Sweeney also brings extensive expertise in challenge-based research on autism, most recently co-leading Adult Autism in Homelessness: Prevalence, Experiences, and Support Needs in an Irish Context – A Mixed Methods Study funded by the National Disability Authority (2020) and Developing an Autism Friendly University at DCU. This was a collaboration with AsIAm and Specialisterne (2018). This project is translating to other Universities internationally, and to other settings demonstrating Prof Sweeney’s substantial knowledge and impact on the current research. Mary Rose has previously worked closely with Irish Autism Action - a voluntary autism charity.

Aoife Lynam
Aoife Lynam

Dr Aoife Lynam (B.Ed., M.A., Ph.D.) is a qualified primary school teacher who graduated in 2008 and has taught in schools as a mainstream class teacher and resource teacher for pupils with additional needs. Aoife has experience of teaching and supporting pupils who have autism in her classroom with the support of a Special Needs Assistant (SNA). Aoife has engaged with young people dealing with sensitive and challenging issues throughout her role as a teacher and a researcher. Aoife is a trained Rainbows Facilitator and has worked with young people who have experienced bereavement, separation, and divorce. Dr Lynam has conducted research in primary and post-primary schools throughout Ireland and has significant knowledge of the educational landscape. Aoife is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Education at DCU. Aoife was awarded the Trinity Gold Medal (2009) for her Undergraduate qualification and a Trinity College Dublin (TCD) Faculty Scholarship awardee (2012). Dr Lynam is a former Irish Research Council for the Humanities and the Social Sciences Scholar (2013-2015) for her doctoral research that explored the experiences of bereaved young people in Irish primary and post-primary schools. Aoife has 14 years’ experience in education and has worked full-time in Higher Education since 2015. Aoife has published and presented her research both nationally and internationally.

Lisa Keenan
Lisa Keenan

Dr Lisa Keenan is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Language, Literacy, and Early Childhood Education in the DCU Institute of Education. She held an IRC scholarship for her PhD (2019-2023) on sleep and cognition in children with Tourette syndrome in University College Dublin. Lisa initially joined this project as a research assistant, with a contract change to postdoctoral researcher once her PhD had been awarded. In 2018, she completed a Master’s in Psychological Science at University College Dublin, where she conducted a mixed-methods study examining Irish primary school teachers’ understanding of executive functioning and experiences in implementing report recommendations into classroom settings. She received her primary degree (BA Hons Psychology) from Maynooth University in 2017. During her MSc and PhD, Lisa designed and conducted public engagement events for a range of audiences, including workshops for primary school teachers and pupils, and art-neuroscience events for children with Tourette syndrome. Lisa has a growing research profile, publishing consistently since completing her primary degree in 2017 and presenting at national and international conferences.

Ciarán Ramsbottom
Ciarán Ramsbottom

Mr Ciarán Ramsbottom is a research assistant in the School of Language, Literacy and Early Childhood Education in the DCU Institute of Education. He completed his MSc in Psychology and Wellbeing (2022-2023) and his BSc in Psychology (2016-2020) at DCU. His work on social jetlag during his MSc was recognised by the university, being awarded the Research Excellence Award. Furthermore, he received the Academic Excellence Award for achieving the highest mark in the 2022-2023 MSc in Psychology and Wellbeing cohort. His thesis is currently under review for publication.

Participants

The aim of this study is to measure levels of understanding of autism and attitudes towards inclusive education for autistic children in Irish educational stakeholders, including:

  1. Primary and post-primary school educators, including teachers of mainstream and special education classes.
  2. Primary and post-primary school administrative and support staff (e.g., SNAs, caretakers, receptionists).
  3. Parents of school-aged children in Ireland, including parents with and without autistic children.

Contact Information

Lead Principal Investigator:  Dr Sinéad McNally – sinead.mcnally@dcu.ie
Co-Principal Investigator:  Prof Mary Rose Sweeney – maryrosesweeney@rcsi.ie
Postdoctoral Researcher:  Dr Aoife Lynam – aoife.lynam@dcu.ie
Postdoctoral Researcher:  Dr Lisa Keenan – lisa.keenan@dcu.ie
Research Assistant: Mr Ciarán Ramsbottom – ciaran.ramsbottom@dcu.ie
DCU Research Ethics Committee: rec@dcu.ie
Autism Friendly Schools Project: autismfriendlyschools@dcu.ie

More Information

Autistic pupils’ experiences in primary and post-primary schools: A scoping review and consultation with autistic pupils in Ireland Preprint Report