Row over Flintshire autism unit closure plan

Council officers say Westwood primary school has not succeeded

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A psychology professor has accused council officers of presenting inaccurate information to justify closing a unit for autistic children.

Council officers say the Westwood Primary School in Buckley, Flintshire, has not succeeded.

But Prof Richard Hastings says Bangor University research proves the claims inaccurate.

Opponents of closing the unit accused council officials of "unfounded claims, flawed evidence and misinformation".

A report to members of Flintshire council's executive argues children at the Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) unit "often fail to generalise... skills they have learnt".

It says unnamed parents complained the unit "restricted the development of their child's independence skills" and left them with "increased dependency on adult support".

Parents supporting the unit say that is not true and have been backed by Prof Hastings who previously oversaw the Westwood ABA unit.

He said the Flintshire report "suggested that some of the skills had not been developed as hoped, that those skills the children had were not generalised - they'd not been able to do the same things in other situations.

"Whereas, because we had that relationship with them that was to collect research data, collect outcome data, we know that that's not quite the case.

"That information is available and clearly shows that children actually did very well."

Bev Mathias and son Elliot Bev Mathias says the threatened-unit has helped her son Elliot communicate
'Progress'

The most recent report by schools inspectors Estyn in 2006 described the unit as "excellent".

It added: "Individual targets are set and excellent pupil progress is observed."

Beverley Mathias, of Caergwrle, said her five-year-old autistic son Elliot had received invaluable help at the unit.

She said: "Before Elliot had ABA he very rarely made eye contact, he wasn't speaking - the way he'd communicate was by touching pictures, and that was kind of ad hoc, whether he'd do it or not.

"You can have a basic conversation with Elliot now. He follows instructions. He's much happier."

Eight-year-old Mollie Johnson recently left the unit, where she learned to communicate through sign language.

Her father Simon Johnson, of Wrexham, questioned Flintshire's argument that there is not sufficient demand to keep the unit open.

"We know from first hand experience they're not telling parents about the unit. Of course, if parents don't know about the unit they're not going to demand it," he said.

Conservative AM Mark Isherwood, who chairs the Welsh assembly's autism group, said: "I wouldn't like to suggest that officers have intentionally misled elected members, but certainly there are major questions to be asked about the evidence they appear to have presented to elected members."

A Flintshire council spokesman said the unit can provide support for 10 pupils but the number of children requiring ABA has reduced over the last few years.

He said: "Only two pupils are due to attend the unit for the next academic year.

"Wrexham and Flintshire councils are looking to utilise and develop other provisions and support to provide a broader programme for pupils with autistic spectrum disorder incorporating a range of interventions."

Councillors on Flintshire's executive will vote on the unit's future on 20 September.

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