Family’s landmark autism victory

By Maggie Taggart

BBC Northern Ireland education correspondent

An east Belfast family has won a legal battle to get full funding for an intensive course of home teaching for their autistic son.

It is believed to be the first time an education and library board has been ordered to pay the full cost of the therapy, which can cost up to £30,000 a year.

A BBC television crew has followed the footsteps of the Murray family in Dundonald for the last year, charting their efforts to get funding for the therapy, which they currently pay for themselves.

Ruth is unemployed and her husband Keith is an electrician, yet they have been paying out thousands to educate seven-year-old Paul at home.

The therapy is called applied behaviour analysis (ABA) and the family employs a rota of teachers in the home.

Up to now, the South Eastern Education and Library Board had wanted Paul to attend a school for severe learning disability.

The board said the therapy was not an efficient use of money.

Tribunal appeal

The Murray family appealed to the Special Educational Needs tribunal, which, in a landmark decision, has ordered the board to pay the whole cost of a year’s teaching.

In the past, some parents have won partial funding for their efforts to teach their autistic children with the therapy, but this is believed to be the first time that full funding has been granted.

The Murrays say the cost of ABA is decreasing and teaching their child will cost less than £17,000 a year.

However, they say the most cost-efficient way to provide it for more children who need it would be through an ABA school.

The board says it will pay for Paul’s education if it decides not to appeal the tribunal decision.

It is already anticipating that more parents will want similar funding for their children, and has now asked the Department of Education to pay for it.

Own money

For years now, the success of some children’s treatment with ABA has encouraged families across Northern Ireland to pay large amounts of their own money for it.

They have employed therapists in their own homes and made huge sacrifices to help their autistic children progress.

In some cases, education and library boards have paid contributions towards the costs, but this tribunal decision is likely to give hope to families that the authorities will be forced to foot the entire bill.

However, some autism experts point out that ABA is not the only successful therapy and that it will not suit all children.

They say it may also require extra elements to ensure a rounded education.

A University of Ulster behaviour analyst said the decision to fund Paul’s therapy marked a turning point in the services available to families with autistic children in Northern Ireland.

Dr Mickey Keenan, of the university’s School of Psychology, has campaigned for the development of ABA in Northern Ireland and said he welcomed the Murray family’s victory.

“This is a breakthrough decision. It opens up hope to parents all over Northern Ireland, who have been campaigning and lobbying for public support for ABA to be made available to help their children,” he said.

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