Subscriber OnlyEducation

‘You’re wasting my time’: Audio recording prompts father of autistic boy to complain of emotional abuse at school

Many parents of children with complex needs say pupils are mistreated in a school system with no guidelines for dealing with challenging behaviour

Alan Rock was growing worried about his son Daniel, aged nine, who has an autism diagnosis. He had been doing well in school and moved out of an autism unit into a mainstream class. Then, he says, it all started going downhill.

“He didn’t want to go to school any more,” says Rock. “After school he’d go straight to bed. He went into himself. He wasn’t talking – he was like a different child.”

Daniel was growing more anxious and would refuse to go into class. He would lock himself in the school toilets or grip on to railings and refuse to let go.

Alan says he gave his son an Apple smartwatch, so that if he felt anxious Daniel could record how he felt and they would discuss it at home in the evening.


The next day Daniel pressed record on his way into school, but didn’t switch it off. When his father played the full recording that night, he says he felt a sense of dread.

“It all began to make sense: the changes in behaviour, not wanting to go to school,” he says.

The recording includes staff members’ interactions with Daniel over several hours as he refused to go into class, as well as discussion about the boy between staff members.

“You’re wasting my time now,” says one staff member. “We are going to get all your class to come and look at you ... We’re not doing this in the mornings any more. See, this is embarrassing ... ”

A staff member then goes on to warn that Daniel won’t be able to attend his Communion with his mother and father if he continues with his behaviour and will have to stay at school “all day” (Daniel was on reduced school hours).

“Yeah, the mum and dad are not gonna come at 12 o’clock any more. I’m gonna call the mum ... and tell her not to collect until 2.40pm, so he’s not gonna go to the circuit room [playing in the hall] any more. He’s going straight to class ...”

Later, another staff member is asked to stay with Daniel and told to “ignore him”, while another says they will change their plan for him. “We’re going to do it on my terms, and you’re not gonna like it at all ...”

There are positive attempts by some staff to support and motivate him at times. The overriding sentiment, however, is frustration.

“You can speak, Daniel. I know you can speak. What’s your issue? Speak. No. I can’t read lips,” says one.

A staff member can be heard saying to another individual: “Feel sorry for them. What are they gonna be like when they’re older?”

One case included an intellectually disabled boy with autism who was put in a wetsuit at school, despite his mother’s objections, to prevent him smearing faeces

After listening to the audio, Rock says he withdrew his son from school the following day. He made an official complaint to the school and Tusla shortly afterwards, stating that the behaviour constituted “emotional abuse”.

In addition, he complained to the Irish Society for Behaviour Analysis, on the basis that applied behaviour analysis was the approach being used to support his son at school.

In a report compiled by its board of directors, based on the transcript, the society concluded that most of the interactions with Daniel were “aversive” and met behavioural definitions used for “verbal abuse”.

Rock says he has yet to hear from the school, while Tusla found that as Daniel’s parents had acted “protectively”, its screening process concluded that no “further action was required”. It said a pattern of behaviour would need to be established for an emotional abuse investigation to proceed further.

The school had not responded to queries from The Irish Times at the time of writing.

The treatment of children with complex needs in the school system has been in the spotlight this week following a report from the Ombudsman for Children’s Office.

One case it highlighted included an intellectually disabled boy with autism who was put in a wetsuit at school, despite his mother’s objections, to prevent him smearing faeces.

Ryan, who is non-verbal, was “distressed and very upset” by being restrained in a wetsuit and would become visibly upset going to school.

Following the ombudsman’s investigation, the school apologised to Ryan and his mother and acknowledged it had no policy for situations where restraint would be used.

It has since introduced a new policy with guidance for teachers to promote positive behaviour rather than sanctions.

“The school has informed us that it found drafting and ratifying this policy challenging in the absence of any guidelines from the Department of Education,” the ombudsman report says.

Unlike in children’s residential care, there are no detailed guidelines on challenging behaviour, including the use of seclusion and restraint, in schools.

Earlier this year Inclusion Ireland, which represents children with intellectual disabilities, and autism charity AsIAm polled more than 400 parents of children with disabilities to help establish the volume of pupils who have experienced seclusion or restraint as a way of managing their behaviour.

Some 35 per cent of respondents said their children had experienced seclusion, while 27 per cent said their children had been restrained at school.

Parents also shared stories of their children who, in extreme cases, were said to have been locked in rooms alone, dragged across school floors or physically held and lifted against their will.

One parent alleged that her distressed son was “dragged across a school floor into a ‘safe space’ [seclusion room] ... An animal would not be treated this way.”

Another described how a teacher allegedly removed their son’s hands from his ears twice when overstimulated with noise, while another said their daughter was bruised from being “lifted by arms and legs” and placed in a sensory room and told “she wasn’t allowed leave”.

He’s like a different child. He’s happy as Larry. It’s a total change

—  Alan Rock on his son's change of school

Derval McDonagh, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland, says pupils have a right to feel safe at school and the treatment of some children with disabilities is “hugely damaging and a violation of their rights”.

She said her organisation was deeply concerned that Department of Education guidelines on understanding and responding to challenging behaviour have yet to be published.

“In effect, another school year has passed. This is five full years since we published our report which shone a light on seclusion and restraint. That is five years of children unnecessarily suffering. We need urgent action. We fear that the public are becoming desensitised to shocking stories. What will it take for there to be action?” Ms McDonagh said.

Adam Harris, chief executive of AsIAm, said too often children who are trying to communicate their distress were being unfairly sanctioned under codes of behaviour in schools.

“Day in, day out, our organisations hear from families who have had alarming experiences in terms of seclusion and restraint within the classroom and a number of these cases have been the subject of various statutory investigations and processes and yet there has been a lack of urgency on this critical issue,” he says.

The Department of Education says it is developing child-centred guidelines regarding “behaviours of concern”, focusing on “creating a whole-school positive approach that emphasises prevention and early intervention”.

A training programme for schools is due to be made available on understanding behaviours of concern and responding to crisis situations once the guidelines are published, which is now expected “before the new academic year”.

For teachers, tasked with ensuring children have an education free from frequent disruption, dealing with challenging behaviour is one of the biggest classroom challenges, while boards of management have a duty to ensure that schools are safe and healthy workplaces.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) says it has highlighted crucial areas which need investment and guidance, including early assessment and intervention, access to Special Needs Assistants in every classroom and continuous professional development for teachers.

It also wants the Department of Education to establish multidisciplinary teams within schools, ensure effective transition support and provide adequate substitute cover for teacher absences. These steps, it says, are vital to support the diverse needs of our pupils and create a more inclusive education system.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said it was essential that a promised guidance document on behaviours of concern is published before the start of the next school term, alongside a comprehensive package of training and supports.

“Government must also address the long waiting lists for therapeutic services, ensure timely backfilling of support service absences and improve the clarity and application of behaviour of concern guidelines,” he said.

“By implementing these measures, our schools, teachers, and most importantly, our students with special educational needs will be supported much more than they are today.”

Alan Rock, meanwhile, says his son is thriving in his new school. “He’s like a different child. He’s happy as Larry. It’s a total change,” he says.

The stories he hears from other parents via a Facebook group he set up are “horrific”, he says. The only avenue open is to complain to school boards of management.

“They’re not independent,” he says. “We need an independent body to investigate these issues. There are no excuses for mistreating children. Some say, maybe a staff member is having a bad day. You can’t have bad days when looking after kids with additional needs. There are no excuses.”

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here