Irish Research Council

New DCU study to investigate experiences of autistic pupils in school

Dr Sinéad McNally (Lead Principal Investigator) at Dublin City University’s Institute of Education and Dr Mary Rose Sweeney (STEM co-Principal Investigator) at DCU’s School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health have been awarded funding from the Irish Research Council to undertake the first large scale systematic investigation of the lived experiences of autistic pupils in Ireland.

Autism-Friendly Schools: Including the Voices of Autistic Pupils in Educational Provision in Ireland is a timely interdisciplinary research study which aims to capture the perspectives and experiences of autistic pupils of all levels of need in education in Ireland in order to identify principles and actions that would enhance the inclusion of autistic pupils in educational settings in Ireland. 

Funding for the study comes from the Irish Research Council’s COALESCE for interdisciplinary research stream which addresses national or global societal challenges.

This research is taking place in partnership with AsIAm, Ireland’s National Autism Charity.

Speaking about the award, study lead Dr Sinéad McNally said,

“There is evidence that autistic children regularly experience exclusion and challenges in education that can result in lifelong difficulties.

The funding from the Irish Research Council for this study will enable us to conduct child-centred research that facilitates autistic children's rights to be heard and listened to. Using methodologies from psychology, education and health our goal is to ensure the voices of autistic pupils, including children at all levels of need, are included. 

Our study will work in consultation with autistic pupils, family members and experienced educators, to capture the voices of autistic pupils in policy and practice to address ongoing challenges around the full inclusion of autistic pupils in education.” 

Dr Mary Rose Sweeney, study co-lead said,

“Autistic pupils face barriers to their academic and social inclusion in educational settings. This study provides a forum for systematic data gathering from autistic pupils, their families and educators to identify and inform what needs to happen to improve their academic and social experiences and outcomes. Importantly our study will also examine attitudes to, and understanding of ASD, among the wider educational community of parents and teachers.

Autistic children and young people may require a range of individualised supports to take a full part in education. Current policies are intended to provide efficient and equitable access to a common set of services across Ireland - the voices of young people with autism need to be included to realise full access to those services.”

About Dr. Sinéad McNally

Sinéad McNally is Assistant Professor in Psychology (birth to six) at the School of Language, Literacy and Early Childhood Education at Dublin City University's Institute of Education. 

Sinéad leads the Early Language and Learning Lab at the DCU Institute of Education, which investigates the ways in which early educational environments contribute to all young children’s development and learning. Her research on inclusive education and development highlights the importance of play, shared reading and language input in early childhood on children’s development and educational experiences. 

About Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney

Mary Rose Sweeney is an Associate Professor in Health Systems and Public Health Research in the School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health, in DCU and formerly Head of School.

Dr Sweeney was the lead investigator on the Irish arm of an EU project entitled Autism Spectrum Disorders in the EU, which was the largest programme of research ever undertaken in the EU on autism and involved researchers from twelve countries in Europe.

She has co-led 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 was the lead investigator and project lead for the Autism Friendly University Project at DCU in collaboration with AsIAm.

Read more about the COALESCE programme here.