School ties 5-year-old autistic boy to chair by ankles, and sends photos to mother in class report

A school strapped a five-year-old autistic boy to a wheelchair while other students played freely and then sent the distressing photos to his parents

                            School ties 5-year-old autistic boy to chair by ankles, and sends photos to mother in class report


A five-year-old boy suffering from autism was strapped to a chair at his waist and ankles at a special school in Northern Ireland, per photos sent to his parents as part of a class report. The boy, who is the youngest of three children, was confined to the chair despite having no special physical needs while other students were allowed to sit and play freely. Upon learning of the teacher's activities about 10 months ago, the parents demanded the school for an apology as well as an assurance that it would never happen again.

However, the school did not appropriately respond to their call, prompting the concerned parents to contact Social Services after their son's psychiatrist explained their claims were a "child protection matter". After lodging a complaint with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, social services wrote to the child's psychiatrist, stating: “We fear [the child] suffered willful or neglectful failure to prevent injury and suffering, and confinement defined as physical abuse under Social Services procedure.”

But the embattled parents say they are left in limbo even after making an official complaint citing negligence and breach of duty by the school, the Education Authority and the Department of Education, Belfast Live reported. An internal education memo obtained by the outlet states that the parents' complaints should be registered as a “potential whistleblowing case” with Internal Audit.

The youngster's mother said: “Our son was tethered like an animal. He’s a placid little boy, all his assessments show that. He is physically fit and active with some challenging behavior but there’s never been a need to restrain him. Those chairs are made for children who need to be elevated and angled to the right position, not our son. We didn’t realize what had been going on until he actually managed to show us himself. Our son is autistic and non-verbal, but until this started happening he’d always been happy and cheerful and very easy company. Quite suddenly his personality changed and for the best part of a year, we were going rapidly downhill. He was tortured, demented. I was really concerned he was going out of his mind."

"He was so distressed and agitated, having panic attacks, suffering night terrors and he was tearful and acting very strangely, a totally different little boy to the one we knew and he couldn’t tell us why. But he started staying in the chair at the dinner table and got very distressed if we tried to get him out of it. His psychiatrist has since told us she believes he’d been conditioned to sitting in a chair because he’d been taught to use the chair in school. He didn’t like it but he didn’t know what else to do. We’d no idea he was restrained in a chair in school and we hadn’t given our permission for that to be done and we were never asked. But we were told by other parents that they’d seen our son being wheeled in the chair at the school but when we asked the school, they denied it," she added.


The five-year-old's dad further explained: “We knew there was something seriously wrong. At first, we worried that it might be something to do with his autism and this behavior was going to be a part of his everyday life. It was a terrible time. The behavior and distress was so far removed from our normal little boy. After dinner, we’d all want to go to watch TV but we struggled to get him to join us. We literally had to wean him off the chair, remove it for short periods and allow it back for a while, then remove it for longer periods until we finally got rid of it. We have video footage of our son who had been a great cuddler, pulling away from everyone, not wanting to be touched or held or cuddled. He would wince and crouch down if anyone walked behind him.”

The boy was eventually able to reveal to his family what he was distressed about. The mother explained in detail: “In January he was lying on the floor with his playbooks scattered around him. These are a scrapbook to show the parents what the children have been up to in school and give an idea of their progress because they are non-verbal. Photos of the classes including our son were stuck into the book and a description of the activity handwritten on the side. We had, of course, looked through them before but we hadn’t noticed that our child had actually been restrained in a chair by his ankles. I was talking away to him and asking him what he wanted to show me, and he just kept touching the book. I started looking very closely at the photos and my heart just started racing. It was there in plain sight, my wee man strapped into a chair by his ankles. I felt sick, it was like the fog lifted. Now we knew, now we had an explanation."

“I contacted the social worker and the psychiatrist and they explained what I feared. This was a police matter, a child protection matter, a matter of abuse of trust and I believe abuse of my son physically. Everything started falling into place and we contacted the school but were told they’d just wanted to keep him safe. No further explanation and no apparent understanding of our concerns. We asked for an apology and an assurance it would never happen again but we got nothing. I looked at my son and saw a broken wee boy. They broke his spirit and he couldn't fight them but thank goodness he managed to let us know through the very books the school sent home," she said.

“We took our son out of school and I homeschooled him and for weeks he was still distressed but he started to heal. His smile came back, his anxiety lifted, his distress lessened and he finally was able to go back to school with different teachers who have been brilliant with him. So while our son is no longer suffering and is no longer strapped into a chair by the ankles, we are still battling for his dignity and his rights that we believe were violated by the very people who should have protected them. The school’s board of governors claim his dignity and respect were maintained. We know they were not and the school sent out the evidence of that themselves," the boy's mother added.

“So although our son is healing and is happy, our distress as his parents is worsening. We had to act for our child but we feel that we have acted for every other vulnerable child who could face this sort of treatment. And the fact that the board of governors and the school and the Education Authority and the Department of Education, cannot seem to grasp what has happened was wrong, is very concerning. And it’s that attitude that has forced us to look to legal action to protect children like ours and others from people who think it’s suitable to tether children into chairs when they have no physical or medical needs for restraint. I’d urge other families who have suffered restraint issues like ours to come forward.”


Kevin Winters, a human rights lawyer, has now agreed to take on the tragic case. Speaking to Belfast Live, he said: “Schools trusted with overseeing children with particular needs always have a difficult job. But the key point here is a communication issue. The core of this matter is our client’s concern that they were not made fully aware of the arrangements made by the school for their son. Against that is the failure to resolve matters to the satisfaction of these parents. This is a human rights matter where a young boy has the right to education in the manner which would allow him to develop. This child has suffered emotionally and the concern is that that emotional suffering will have impacted on his education and to that end, his human rights are engaged.”

On the other hand, a spokesperson for the National Association of Head Teachers who is representing the principal of the school said: “There is an on-going investigation into these allegations. Our member is complying fully with the investigation.” The Education Authority said, “In order to protect the confidentiality of the child, EA cannot comment on circumstances relating to specific children.”