‘One gives you roots, the other...wings’: understanding the experiences of children on the autism spectrum and their parents as they co-navigate the Irish early years education system together
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This study explores the experiences of parents and their young children before, during and after accessing preschool and primary school education, placing particular emphasis on the factors that enabled or hindered their inclusion. The conceptual framework employed throughout the study is informed by relevant research and policy and incorporates five fundamental areas: (1) The Narrative of Autism (2) Families’ Experiences (3) Inclusion in Education (4) Reconceptualising Quality and (5) Conflict in Practice. The importance of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecological Theory of Human Development in understanding and evaluating the lived experiences of these young children on the autism spectrum and their parents cannot be overstated. This ecological stance facilitated the exploration and interpretation of the action inherent within the interconnected social systems of these young children’s homes, educational settings, communities and wider society. The research throughout was underpinned by critical narrative inquiry, whereby, the importance of narrative (families’ experiences) and grand narratives (wider social issues) permeate the methodology and associated methodological tools. Six parents shared stories of navigating the Irish early years education system with their young child on the autism spectrum. Their children’s voices were incorporated into these narratives using visual storytelling methods. Through an analysis of narratives, parents’ experiences revealed the presence of conflicting and contradictory perspectives and action at macro-level that, in some instances, resulted in the exclusion of their children from education and support settings. A child-centred narrative analysis offered further insight into these young children’s experiences of inclusion, and indeed exclusion, and highlighted how their voices and self-identity are co-constructed ecologically. This premise constitutes the central theme of the reconstructed narratives (folktales) and informs the conclusions and recommendations, where empowering partnerships among all stakeholders in inclusive education are urged.