Thursday, February 3, 2011

Saplings, Providing a Unique Education for Children with Autism

With thanks to The Ireland Funds - we present The Saplings Rathfarnham Connect Magazine. 

Click on the images to enlarge.

Click on the images to enlarge them.

All the beautiful photographs by Aengus McMahon Photography. Aengus was fantastic with the kids and as you can see did beautiful work.  Please contact him at

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How our School Works - Part 1 Supervision and Planning

Jojo the OT presenting a medal, Susan the Supervisor, Grace Domican and her tutor Joanne on Sports Day, Friday 23rd July 2010.

As the mother of 2 kids of with very high needs, I am uniquely placed to appreciate the benefits of quality supervision in Saplings Rathfarnham.

The Supervisor, Director of Education and Senior Tutor in each classroom all work to plan and then implement agreed goals in liaison with our family.

Having a high level of supervision means that our kids individual needs are catered for in planning and constant measurement of results.
I have also found that where a problem existed only in the home environment, the Supervisors and Director have been very accessible in helping me understand and assess the key issues - with home visits, in school meetings and support in measuring the behaviour.
And then ultimately in creating a clearly agreed behaviour plan with practical supports to overcome the issues.
Communication within the school is consistent and I find that this supports the reduction of inappropriate behaviours while of course reinforcing those we want to improve.
The Supervisors, Senior Tutors and Director have also been a great source of moral support during the various difficulties we have had with the kids - which makes a huge difference to quality of life.
I also think they fundamentally believe in the potential of all our kids and it is a relief to be amongst people who think there is no problem or issue that cannot be solved - they just need to change the lesson - not the Learner!

And where possible they seek to incorporate the recommendations of key therapeutic staff, like our full time Occupational Therapist Jojo.

Jojo works year round in the school to support each individual child's well being through hands on physical therapy, and group activities like the weekly social role-play. (more about that next week)

However, for the last few weeks of term, Jojo was busy training everyone for the annual Sports day. It is a wonderful chance for parents to visit the school and watch their kids take part in games and races.
And of course - prizes!

Senior Tutor Tony supervises the scoreboard while Jojo presents a medal to Liam Domican

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Impact of Giving

Saplings is being supported by many hardworking and generous people at the moment.

On the weekend a number of friends of Saplings ran, jogged and briskly walked in at least 2 of the 32 marathons for Irish Autism.
A pro-rata share of the money raised in each of the 32 Counties the marathon visits will be distributed to local groups and our Friends ensured that Saplings was represented.

Big thanks to Noel Reidy who did the Dublin Run for Ciaomh Connolly, a pupil in the school and Grace and Liam Domican's Daddy, Aunty Maeve and Aunty Moira who joined the Wicklow run.
Click on their names to check out the mycharity links and donate if you wish. Together they have raised over €2,500! Amazing work guys, thanks so much!

Noel Reidy in Dublin on July 3rd

Moira, Bill and Maeve Domican in Wicklow

A number of very generous Irish artists have also donated works to be sold at the Annual Achieving Art Show.

Organised by Ciaomh Connelly's Dad, his friends and colleagues in Temple Bar, the show opens with a buying party this Thursday 8th July at the Bernard Shaw Bar in Portabello.

Achieving Art has raised over €30,000 over the last 3 years and we hope to continue this success. There has never been a better time to invest in quality art that will appreciate in value for years to come, while at the same time investing in the future potential of our remarkable Saplings kids.

Together these projects could help secure the post of our Additional Supervisor for another 12 months.

Sapling's supervisors develop and adapt the individual education program for every child in the school, according to their interests and ability and in consultation with their family.

Every program is measured on an hourly, daily, weekly and annual basis and changed to suit the progress or needs of the learner in the way they need to be taught.

They also ensure consistency of delivery of all programs, ensuring that our kids can work and relate to a number of tutors without any loss of skills.
Having an additional supervisor means they can work more intensely with the 12 children they are responsible for, and provide home/school liaison and support.

As the mother of 2 very loveable but very autistic individuals, I don't know what I would have done without the support and guidance of the Saplings Supervisors and Educational Director in steering me through some recent behavioural challenges.

And that is the real impact of the money donated to support Saplings Schools, it improves the quality of life for all concerned.

Thank You All

Lisa Domican


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Call for Art - Can you donate a piece for Achieving Art 2010?


Now in its 4th year, Dublin’s best charitable art exhibition is now calling on Artists for submissions incorporating all art forms such as Street art, Contemporary Art, Photography and Sculpture.

Please email Gene at: for your submission form .

All pieces donated need to be ‘ready to exhibit’ and 100 % of the profits of this exhibition go directly towards funding Saplings School for Autistic Kids in Rathfarnham, a vital service for severely autistic children and their families.

Saplings takes these vulnerable children, who are at risk of social exclusion and institutionalisation, and gives them the chance to unlock and achieve their full potential.

With the help of Saplings, they learn how to participate in family and community life.

Be part of this.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A boy's best friend

When Caoimh Connolly stopped hugging, it was the first sign that he was autistic, says Joy Orpen. But revolutionary therapy from the Saplings School in Rathfarnham, and a remarkable dog, have turned his life around.

By Joy Orpen, Sunday Independent Magazine

Sunday April 25 2010

An adorable dog with a diligent but sensitive nature has helped a little boy find the courage to move from a place of confused isolation into one of brightness and hope.

Caoimh Connolly, six, who suffers from autism, had become so impossible to handle that his distraught parents had stopped taking him anywhere. It was traumatic for Caoimh, and exhausting for his parents to deal with Caoimh's extreme tantrums.

Yet, today, that same little boy looks forward to his outings, while his parents are relieved to be leading a relatively normal life again.

According to Autism Support Ireland, and Irish Autism Action, autism is "characterised by severe problems in communication and behaviour and an inability to relate to people in a normal manner".

On meeting Caoimh in Rialto, Dublin 8, I can see that he has some of those traits. The little boy is constantly on the move, spinning, twirling, jumping and shouting. But he has made great progress too. His mother, Adrienne Murphy, draws him to her and talks to him with a loving, patient voice. The boy glances at her briefly before resuming his jumping, galloping and shouting.

Though his father, Dara Connolly, and Adrienne no longer live together, the wellbeing of Caoimh and his older brother, Fiach, nine, is their absolute priority. And so Dara and Adrienne are hugely busy fundraising for Caoimh's school and lobbying the Government for a more humane deal for children with autism. All this is on top of their jobs heading up finance and business development at the Temple Bar Cultural Trust, and journalism, respectively.

This frenetic road was certainly not one they had anticipated when their second son was born. "Caoimh means gentle in Irish, and we thought we had the best-named child in the world," says Dara.

But then things started to change, and Fiach, then five, was first to notice. "He told us that Caoimh didn't hug him anymore," says Adrienne, "and he noticed that his younger brother wasn't making eye contact."

Then the toddler "lost" the few words he knew, while his innate gentleness gave way to frustration and anger. "He used to tear pages from books, bite people and scribble manically on the walls," recalls Adrienne. "When a child regresses like this into autism, it is hugely distressing for the parents. It's like losing the child." Four years ago, an assessment revealed that Caoimh was autistic. The cause is unknown.

Lisa, who is a parent at Saplings Rathfarnham, the school where Caoimh is now enrolled, describes the condition on the school's website: "Autism is a sensory disability in which everything your child sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells is distorted."

She likens it to being in a foreign city where you don't speak the language and everyone is too busy to help you. The sights, sounds, and bustle become horrendously unmanageable.

It's a frightening scenario, yet Caoimh's parents discovered there was almost no help available for their son.

However, they felt that a certain system, applied behaviour analysis (ABA), offered Caoimh his best shot at a normal life.

In simple terms, ABA is a system of analysing behaviour and then modifying it by offering incentives for change.

The goal of ABA is to help the child find a link between their unique, very complex autistic world and ours. It's a very intense form of long-term, one-on-one therapy.

There are many other complex issues involved: the non-talking child may need to learn sign language, or to communicate using pictures; they may have phobias about clothes, food, sounds and smells, which are caused by their over-sensitive sensory perceptions.

They may have emotional difficulties and severe behavioural problems. So ABA has to address all of these.

The rewards ABA brings, according to some experts, far outweigh the effort and expense involved. A good percentage of children with autism who are exposed to full-time ABA become part of mainstream education and go on to lead productive lives.

Adrienne and Dara decided this was Caoimh's only hope. Eventually they were offered a place at Saplings, Rathfarnham, a small school that uses the ABA method. "We are so lucky to be among the small percentage in Ireland who will get a place at an ABA school," says Dara.

Already he and Adrienne can see phenomenal changes in Caoimh. He is trying to speak, he is learning to integrate in a normal environment, and, best of all, he is not terrified of the world around him all the time .

Like many of the other parents, Dara and Adrienne constantly have to raise funds to keep Caoimh's school going, since it is only partly funded by government, but it's a small price to pay for the positive returns they get.

Another godsend in Caoimh's difficult life is a German shepherd-golden retriever cross called Cosmo. He is the result of an initiative by Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind (IGDB) to train dogs to assist young children with autism.

Adrienne and Dara spent a week at IGDB headquarters in Cork learning how to handle the dog.

Dara says the staff were "unbelievably helpful and supportive"; and, in addition, they didn't charge them for their stay or for Cosmo.

When they brought the dog home, Caoimh would have nothing to do with him, but several months later he began tentatively touching the dog and then playing with him.

Today, Cosmo watches over Caoimh like a hawk, while the little boy has shown great courage in placing his trust in the dog.

When Cosmo is working, he wears a special jacket that has two leads: one for the adult in charge, while the other connects to a rucksack worn by Caoimh. The dog is so well trained there is no possibility of the little boy wandering off or running into traffic.

"Caoimh's anxiety is much less now he knows he is physically safe with Cosmo," says Adrienne. "The dog is also a calming presence. When Caoimh is stressed he strokes Cosmo's ear and this reduces his anxiety. This has also helped him to learn to regulate his own adrenaline levels caused by stress."

Adrienne says this is in stark contrast to the anxiety Caoimh used to pick up from her. "Cosmo doesn't care if people stare and he's not always in a state of acute anxiety in case something goes wrong," she explains. "It's thanks to Cosmo that Caoimh now has access to the outside world. I can't tell you what that means to us all; our lives are transformed."

- Joy Orpen

Sunday Independent

Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, Autism Support Ireland, Irish Autism Action Blog

Monday, April 19, 2010

Autism iPhone breakthrough: from tantrums to app-y days

Saplings has proved to be a crucial factor in the development of Grace App that enables non-verbal and those with developing vocalisations to use picture exchange, on an iPhone.

ASHER MOSES: The Melbourne Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and W.A. Today - Digital Life
April 16, 2010

Few can legitimately boast that an iPhone app changed their life but for 10-year-old Grace Domican, unable to speak due to autism, the touchscreen phone has given her a voice for the first time.

Her mother, Lisa Domican, created a picture-based iPhone application to help her communicate and the tool was so successful she is now trialling it in a school for autistic children in Ireland.

Domican, who was born in Australia and lived here until she moved to Ireland in 2001, is also planning to provide it to schools in Australia and is selling both iPhone and iPad versions on the iTunes App Store.

Aspect, Australia's largest non-profit organisation providing support for people with autism, has expressed interest in trialling the app with its clients, while Domican said she had also been in contact with the Woodbury School in Baulkham Hills.

The Grace app is essentially a digital version of the Picture Exchange Communications System - a book of laminated pictures attached to a board by velcro that allows children with autism to build sentences and communicate.

Children with autism are often unable to use and understand expressive language because the developmental disability means those parts of the brain don't work. Some children with autism go on to develop speech, while others never do.

As the child learns new words via pictures they are added to the PECS book, a system that quickly becomes unwieldy, particularly outside the home setting.

"You have to take the photo, print the photo, laminate the photo, velcro it and repeat this every time they decide they like something new," said Domican, whose older son Liam, 12, also has autism.

With the app, which is being sold for A$45 on the App Store with some of the proceeds going to charity, Grace has access to more than 400 symbols and photos in the palm of her hand. She can add new ones herself by taking pictures with the phone's camera.

Domican is able to share new words and interests instantly with Grace's carers and teachers so they can use them in their interactions with the child.

The iPhone's touchscreen was critical as Grace was used to pointing at the pictures in her PECS book, so it was second nature to open and operate the apps.

"With the phone showing exactly what she has requested, it is now very clear to all of us what she needs and we see a huge reduction in frustration behaviour as a result," Domican said.

"Grace is capable of a two- to three-hour tantrum that leaves your ears ringing, so this is a good thing."

Now the app is being trialled on several of Grace's fellow students at a Saplings school in Ireland, designed specifically for children who cannot be taught in mainstream schools.

Members of the public have been donating their second-hand iPhones, which are then cleaned up and donated to autism schools.

Domican even credits the app with improving Grace's verbal communication, saying she can now make many three- to four-word verbal requests, such as "I want to drink" or "I want purple chocolate" (Cadbury).

Anthony Warren, Aspect's director for children, young people and families, said he thought the Grace app was "a great idea" but suspected it would not be a substitute for the formal PECS program. He said he was sure Aspect's schools and speech pathologists would be interested in trialling it.

"It certainly sounds as though it would be very motivating and helpful for clients who have higher support needs and who are motivated by that sort of technology," he said.

Domican said she got the idea for the app after seeing iPhone ads on the sides of buses just before the device launched in Ireland. The telco O2 Telefonica supplied her with an iPhone after meeting Domican at a World Autism Day event.

Last year, Domican tracked down an iPhone developer, Steve Troughton Smith, who helped her make the app. Since the pictures used by Grace were owned by a company, Domican had to draw sketches of each image she would need for a basic vocabulary and then contracted an artist to make professional, digital versions.

Smith created a prototype of the app in September and "by the end of November we had four additional phones and we were trialling it with three more children in the school".

Domican and her family have lived in Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney. They regularly fly down to visit family in Ballarat.

Liam was diagnosed in the Royal Brisbane Hospital in 2000 and attended the Autistic Association of Queensland school in Brighton for almost a year. Grace was diagnosed by a paediatrician in Ballarat in September 2001, just before the family moved to Ireland.

Domican said she would like to move back to Australia but said at the moment there were inadequate provisions for autistic kids in state-funded schools.

"A one size fits all special needs education would not suit kids like mine and their potential could be lost," she said.