Battle to find school for autistic child

The Western Cape Education Department is battling to keep up with services needed for children with Autism-Spectrum Disorder.

* The Western Cape Education Department is battling to keep up with services needed for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Raising an autistic child is challenging enough without having to deal with the headache of finding a school that will cater to their needs.

Yet this has been the plight of an Ysterplaat family who have been struggling to secure a spot for their autistic boy at a school since 2013.

Annique Botha says her only grandchild, Ra eez Botha, was diagnosed with autism in 2013.

The six-year-old was supposed to start Grade 1 this year but has had to spend another year at crèche because he was not placed at a school.

“When he was diagnosed, Red Cross Children’s Hospital referred him to Vera School, which is a school for autism, on December 5, 2013,” said Ms Botha.

She said after Ra eez’s name was submitted, Vera School was supposed to call them to make an appointment for screening to be done. This would determine which school he would be placed at.

“I never got the call. In January 2015 I called Vera, Glenbridge Special School and Vista Nova School but nowhere on the database did he exist.”

Ms Botha called the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) but said they were not very helpful. Eventually she got through to a psychologist from the WCED who told her there was a waiting list of more than 800 children.

“He told me the department of education was going to open a school for children with autism in Stikland in 2016 and that there would be place for Ra eez.

“He said we would have to meet for me to fill out a form. Hearing about that long waiting list was a bitter pill to swallow.”

Ms Botha said the meeting never happened and in August she once again called Vera School who said they still had no trace of Ra eez on their database.

Ms Botha said she asked Red Cross Children’s Hospital to resubmit Ra eez’s name to Vera.

“After they resubmitted his name, I called them to ask if he showed on their database but still they said he was not there.

“This is after Red Cross resent his referral documents to Vera and the education department.”

Growing increasingly desperate and impatient, Ms Botha went to the WCED offices on November 4 last year.

Ms Botha and Ra eez’s mother went from door to door until they eventually spoke to Arthur Cowley, the chief education specialist in the WCED’s specialised education directorate.

He directed them to the deputy chief education specialist, Minna Steyn.

“She checked on her computer and after some digging found Ra eez’s name on the waiting list. He was number 442. She said his name was only submitted in October 2015 but I had brought proof that his name had been submitted in December 2013 already.

“She also found out that he was placed at Alpha School in Woodstock.”

She said Ms Steyn said Ra eez was a “priority” and that he should be in school.

Ms Botha hoped this was the end of their problems but she returned to the department two weeks later when Ms Steyn failed to get back to the family.

“In March Ms Botha was informed that Ra eez was number three on Alpha’s waiting list.

Ms Botha said she feels a responsibility to fight not only for her grandchild but also for other autistic children whose parents may not know where to turn to.

“I want to see the WCED and Vera own up to their mistakes and rectify them and make my grandchild a priority. He is getting the short end of the stick.

“He needs to be in school by next year because 2016 is done and dusted. I truly believe his rights to an education are being violated,” she said.

When Tabletalk contacted the Vera School, they referred all queries to the WCED.

Jessica Shelver, spokesperson for Education MEC, Debbie Schäfer, said the WCED was aware of Ra eez’s case and that he will be prioritised for placement in 2017.

“The mother has met with the provincial programme manager for schools for Autism Spectrum Disorder and the provincial manager for Special School programmes.

“The screening assessment of the learner has already been done and it has been confirmed that he has Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“He will be admitted for a two-week observation period at Alpha School in 2016. The programme manager met with the principal on Friday May 27 and an observation date should have already been sent to the parent.”

When asked how the placement process works, Ms Shelver said the WCED has instituted a provincial placement process.

“The provincial programme manager, district specialised education support officials and the school representative is on the placement committee,” she said.

Ms Shelver said there is an increased demand for placement at schools in the Western Cape for pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“The severity of symptoms is decreased by early intervention. We are collaborating with the departments of Health and Social Development to address the needs of pre-school learners with ASD, for example, the WCED is assisting with the training of Early Childhood Development (ECD) practitioners in ASD.

“Over the last five years, an additional 37 classes for ASD have been established by the WCED. New buildings are currently being built for two existing special schools which will increase the number of places for ASD.

“Because of the specialised nature of the support needed and the lack of facilities in the rest of the country, there is an increasing movement into the province of families and their children with ASD from outside of the province,” she said.

She said Vera and Alpha are two schools in the province specialising in providing education to children with ASD.

She added that there are seven other special schools where the department has added satellite specialised units for ASD.

“In addition, depending on the amount of support needed, learners may be placed at other kinds of special schools or ordinary schools. Capacity building programmes are in place for officials and teachers” she said.