The Spanish family fighting for the rights of their autistic child

Cristian’s parents are challenging a regional government decision to pull their son out of his familiar environment on the basis it will be too traumatic for him

Eva Saiz
Cristian’s mother Conchi Sierra.
Cristian’s mother Conchi Sierra.Paco Puentes

The pupils at the Nelson Mandela primary school in La Carlota, a town of 14,000 inhabitants in the province of Córdoba, went back to school last Monday – all except for Cristian, a six-year-old boy who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two-and-a-half.

Cristian stayed home to avoid his world being turned upside down as tests to assess the evolution of his condition concluded that his particular educational requirements cannot be met where he is.

We have been asking for a special classroom in the school for months and they go and install it in another school

Conchi Sierra, Cristian’s mother

During the summer, the regional government of Andalusia offered Cristian a place in an alternative state school in the same town called Carlos III, which has been equipped to deal with Cristian’s needs. And last Friday, three days before the term began, the family received a reminder of the change. Cristian’s parents are, however, fighting the decision as an alteration such as this one, they say, can only be harmful to their son’s well-being. They are intending to take the matter to court.

Cristian began at the Nelson Mandela school at the age of three. When it was time to move from pre-school into primary school, he was asked to do a series of tests to assess his abilities. The results of these tests suggested he should be moved from the B model of education to the C model. The B model implies that the student is an integrated member of the class with supplementary tutoring from a speech therapist and a special education teacher. The C model, on the other hand, states that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder should be in a separate class altogether to receive an education specific to their needs.

The Nelson Mandela school has no special education classroom. Neither, however, did Carlos III. But, instead of heeding requests to furnish the Nelson Mandela school with the resource, it was installed in the Carlos III school instead.

“We have been asking for a special classroom in the school for months and they go and install it in another school,” says Conchi Sierra, Cristian’s mother. “What I want to know and what they are not telling me is why they have installed it in a school where there was no demand for it, instead of in the school that had asked for it.”

Being moved from a mainstream classroom to a special education classroom, even within the same center, would alter the child’s routine

Sierra is now leading a crusade to prevent Cristian from being transferred from his school, and this summer she managed to mobilize the town of La Carlota to demonstrate in force against the move. Last week she posted a video appealing to the regional premier, Susana Díaz, to meet with her so she could present Cristian’s case in person. Her latest move has been to campaign via petition website Change.org, which garnered 200,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.

In response, the Andalusia government insists that it is simply addressing the specific needs of the child. According to the education chief in Córdoba, Antonio José López, “the regional government is only applying the law, which states that if such a facility does not exist, the authorities are obliged to seek a school place that conforms to the family’s needs.”

The reason they installed the facility in Carlos III school instead of Nelson Mandela, as had been requested, is because Carlos III had other children with similar needs and special education teachers. Carlos III is also closer to Cristian’s family home.

I would rather my son continued as he was with his schoolmates than have him enrolled in another school

Conchi Sierra, Cristian’s mother

“In this class, there are three children with different disabilities and with the change to TEA [Autism Spectrum Disorder], they will have a special teacher,” says the director of Carlos III, Beatriz Guerrero, who did not want to comment on the specifics of Cristian’s case.

Concerning children with special educational needs, Andalusian law dictates that the regional government must educate them in “schools that have specific facilities” in order to “provide the adequate educational response,” in line with the 40/2011 Decree that regulates school admissions.

“The reports from the head of Autismo Córdoba and from Juan Martos, a psychologist specializing in autism, agree that Cristian’s needs would be best met by keeping him in his environment,” says Sierra. “Changes are harmful. My child is perfectly integrated in his school with his schoolmates.”

Being moved from a mainstream classroom to a special education classroom, even within the same center, would alter the child’s routine. However, as Miguel Ángel López, president of the Autism Córdoba Association, points out: “By staying in the same school, the change would not be as traumatic. The problem here is that the resource has been provided but not in the school the family wanted it in, due to a lack of funding.”

Recently, the regional government offered Cristian’s parents a reassessment of Cristian’s educational needs. “After the summer, the students can undergo changes on a psycho-evolutionary level,” says Córdoba’s representative for education, Antonio José López. This allows for the possibility that Cristian may no longer need a special facility and could continue in the mainstream class – at Carlos III. However, Cristian’s parents are not interested in more assessment, they simply want Cristian to be allowed to remain where he is. “I would rather have my son continue as he was with his schoolmates than have him enrolled in another school,” says Sierra.

Educational models B and C carry the same implications across the whole of Spain, with a move from B to C entailing being removed from the mainstream class. “That measure breaches the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Charter of Human Rights for people with autism which advocates the right of an inclusive education,” says López. “In children with TEA [Autism Spectrum Disorder], each case is different and the handling of it should depend on the specific needs of the minor.”

Cristian’s brother Jesús, eight, also goes to the Nelson Mandela school, which is another reason why Cristian’s parents are resisting the move, although Jésus has also been guaranteed a spot in Carlos III. “He has been at his school for six years and we are not going to take him to another one where there are too many students to a class,” says Sierra.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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