Autism remains unresolved issue

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Sun Apr 04 2010

There was a time that parents of autistic children were told the disorder was caused by a lack of love and attention. It takes no more than a minute with any of these families to see that is one thing their children are not lacking.

What they do lack, though, is a provincial government and school system that have been able to meet their needs adequately.

There have been some improvements under the Liberal government at Queen’s Park, but a comprehensive solution remains elusive.

There are 1,478 autistic children on a waiting list for the intensive government-funded therapy known as IBI. That’s more than the 1,376 children who are getting the one-on-one therapy.

While the Liberals have dramatically increased funding – from $44 million in 2003 to $165 million today – they have not managed to improve the troubled relationship between the government and the autism community.

That is why parents and their autistic kids were at Queen’s Park twice in recent weeks trying to draw attention to their plight.

The government’s solution to the waiting list is to move more autistic kids into the school system where they can receive therapy and an education. With the right supports, kids 6 or older could be in school, thereby freeing up spaces for the younger kids on the therapy wait list.

It is a promising plan, but implementation of it has proven to be difficult. Tens of millions have been spent preparing and training 13,000 teachers, principals and other staff; yet only 170 autistic kids have been brought into the school system under the program.

In time, those numbers will undoubtedly rise, but there is still great uncertainty about whether the schools are being prepared to offer what these kids need. School boards have not generally welcomed autistic children or their therapists into classrooms, and the province has refused to force the issue. Meanwhile, parents argue that the less intensive therapy offered in schools is a cheap imitation of the real thing and falls well short of what their kids need. This lack of trust will undermine the success of the school-based solution going forward.

Solving the autism crisis may take more money but certainly it will take much more than that. The government must mend relations and gain the trust of these parents.

Right now, when parents are told their children do not qualify for IBI or are no longer benefiting from it, they see it as no more than a ploy to ease the wait lists for therapy.

Parents know they have their child’s best interests at heart. The government must find a way to convince them that it does, too.

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