Project Spotlight: Autism-Friendly Schools: Including the Voices of Autistic Pupils in Educational Provision in Ireland

Posted: 31 March, 2023

Dr Sinéad McNally, DUC Institute of Education

In advance of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd, we are excited to spotlight an innovative interdisciplinary COALESCE project that launched this week at Dublin City University. We spoke to Lead Principal Investigator, Dr Sinéad McNally, of DCU’s Institute of Education to find out about her important research on the voices of autistic pupils in Irish education.

Tell us a little bit about your research background.

I have been researching autism and how young children learn for over 15 years. Autism is very common and is a developmental condition characterised by social, communication and sensory differences (AsIAm). When I first started researching in this field, the dominant approach to educating autistic children was informed by a medical model and what we would now consider to be a deficit approach to autism. My first study in the field was my doctoral research which was funded by an Embark Initiative scholarship from the Irish Research Council (2005-2009). My research challenged the dominant intervention approach to autism and investigated early language interventions for young autistic children that were based on a developmental, child-centred approach. My findings suggested that developmentally-informed approaches supported quality language outcomes for young children. This focus on child-centred, responsive approaches to the inclusive education and care of young children has been a constant driver in my academic career. Now as a lecturer of psychology in education, I am privileged to be supervising doctoral students who are investigating play-based teaching and inclusive education for autistic children.

Can you give us an introduction to your new project?

In my current research, I am leading a major new study of the school experiences of autistic pupils in Ireland. The study is the first of its kind in Ireland and is an interdisciplinary collaboration with my STEM co-PI Dr Mary Rose Sweeney, Associate Professor in Health Systems/Public Health Research at DCU’s School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health. The study is supported by AsIAm, Ireland’s national charity for the autism community and will focus on the educational experiences of autistic primary and post-primary pupils.

The main objective of the Autism-Friendly Schools study is to capture the missing voices of autistic pupils and their importance in policy and practice to address ongoing challenges around the full inclusion of all autistic pupils in education. At the heart of this national study is a fully consultative process working with autistic pupils and their parents about their school experiences and what “Inclusive Education” means for them.


Dr. Sinéad McNally, Associate Professor in Psychology at the DCU Institute of Education (Principal Investigator) speaking to children.

The full inclusion of all children in education is enshrined in the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disability. Yet we know that autistic children and young people often experience exclusion and challenges in education which result in lifelong difficulties. Informed by a rights-based perspective of development and emphasising children’s right to be heard and listened to, our study employs methodologies from multiple disciplines including psychology, education and health to ensure the voices of autistic pupils, including children at all levels of need, are included. A major objective of our study is to identify and develop clear guidelines for supporting the inclusion of autistic children in education.

What are some of the greatest challenges facing researchers in your field? What are the greatest opportunities?

The greatest opportunity for researchers in my field of developmental psychology is to conduct research in partnership with children on the key issues that are critical to their development and wellbeing. There is an increasing recognition that not only should we seek to include children’s voices in research but that children should also be afforded the opportunity to find out how their views have been heard and acted upon (Lundy, 2007). However, child-centred research is time-intensive and requires methodological expertise and experience. Consulting with children in a meaningful way very often requires several waves of data collection to ensure children have fully interactive opportunities to share their views and to see how their data have been analysed, shared and ultimately how they have had impact on the findings. An added challenge is that children with disabilities have been routinely excluded from research (Lundy et al., 2011; Stafford, 2007) due to the desire of researchers to first ‘do no harm’.


Dr. Aoife Lynam, Postdoctoral Researcher, Dr. Sinéad McNally, Associate Professor in Psychology and Dr Mary Rose Sweeney, Associate Professor in Health Systems/Public Health Research

With the support of funding from the Irish Research Council, our research prioritises the views of autistic children on inclusive education, including consultation with our study’s child and youth advisory group of autistic pupils who will play an important role in guiding the study. This week during World Autism Acceptance Week, we are thrilled to be launching the first phase of data collection with autistic children and their parents.

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