Parents troubled by escalating segregation of autistic students

Over 180 requests are still pending for students currently waiting for a learning support educator in school with them.

File photo
File photo

Over 180 requests are still pending for students currently waiting for a learning support educator (LSE) in school with them.

The situation has concerned MaltaCAN, the umbrella of 14 independent organisations advocating for children’s rights, which made an urgent appeal to education authorities, policymakers, stakeholders, and unions to reconsider policies that are contributing to the segregation of children on the autism spectrum.

“We are deeply troubled by the escalating segregation of children on the autism spectrum in Malta. There is a disturbing trend of pushing children on the autism spectrum away from mainstream education, limiting their opportunities for inclusive learning experiences,” a MaltaCAN spokesperson said.

The organisation, which advocates for an inclusive educational environment that embraces diversity and ensures equal opportunities, believes certain actions by unions, coupled with school policies are exacerbating the problem.

“Directives that restrict learning support educators from working with specific students target vulnerable individuals, effectively pushing them out of the school system.

“This is a serious concern when taking into consideration the 180 pending applications from students who are currently waiting for a learning support educator,” MaltaCAN said.

A lack of data and research into the current situation has also underscored the urgency of addressing the issue.

MaltaCAN says several children on the spectrum are currently not attending school or were being actively pushed out of their school. “We are speaking out after receiving several reports from parents and encountering these problems firsthand. Parents of children on the autistic spectrum have highlighted the lack of resources and training across schools.”

The Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability also spoke about the need for more learning support educators (LSEs) and more training for educators in the area, among others.

In Malta there are over 4,200 students who have been issued with a statement of needs: 1,473 have a full-time LSE and another 2,729 have a shared LSE.

The Union of Professional Educators (UPE) this week said LSEs employed at state resource centres were themselves suffering the absence of standard operating procedures and protocols.

UPE executive head Graham Sansone said LSEs were at occupational risk and burdened with unnecessary legal responsibilities. “Specifically, tasks related to personal support and transport lack official guidelines, creating anxiety and fear among educators who are left to perform these duties without proper direction,” Sansone said.

“The omission of essential procedures, such as feeding students with specific conditions, toileting and personal hygiene protocols, and transport-related guidelines for students with disabilities, exposes educators to potential health risks and legal repercussions. The reliance on individual judgment leaves them vulnerable to accusations of negligence or abuse, as there are no clear directives on how to carry out these critical responsibilities.”

Sansone said the absence of authoritative guidelines in these crucial areas highlighted the need for a change in the industrial representation of LSEs. “While other countries have established standards for similar duties, Malta lags behind despite its inclusive education policy and formal job description for educators.”

The UPE also complained of a lack of adequate facilities, equipment, and provisions for LSEs: “Many schools lack proper toileting and hygiene facilities for disabled students, forcing LSEs to work in unsuitable conditions. Additionally, LSEs are not provided with protective equipment and hygienic material, often having to purchase these items themselves. This places a financial burden on LSEs and raises concerns about the overall policy failure in providing essential support.”