Autism and schools

Posted on July 6, 2009 in Education Debates, Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion/Editorial – Autism and schools
July 06, 2009

There are more autistic children on a waiting list to get government-funded therapy than there are children actually receiving the one-on-one help.

The latest provincial government statistics show 1,306 children are getting intensive behavioural intervention (IBI), while 1,513 are waiting for it. Another 389 kids are waiting to be assessed so they can qualify for therapy – and earn a spot on the waiting list.

Little surprise, then, that NDP Leader Andrea Horwath attacked the provincial government last week for doing too little for autistic children. “This is an area we know is suffering greatly from lack of government resources,” she said.

But given that provincial funding for autism has gone from zero a decade ago to $158 million today, more money does not seem to be the only answer.

Children’s Minister Deb Matthews does not try to diminish the horror of lengthy wait lists, which force parents to watch their children fall further behind or take on enormous debt to pay for IBI out of their own pockets. “It is simply not okay,” she says. But Matthews maintains a solution has been found.

Some 80 per cent of the kids receiving IBI are 6 or older, and, with the right supports, could be in school. That would open up spaces for the younger kids on the wait list to receive IBI.

By early next year, all school boards will have the training and staff needed to work with parents and IBI therapists to create individual plans that would allow autistic kids to learn in school. This option has long been available for kids with other special needs.

Parents, understandably, remain wary.

Many Ontario schools have not welcomed autistic children – or their therapists. For parents trying to get proper support for their autistic children within schools, it has been akin to running into “a brick wall.”

Everyone agrees that integration of autistic children with their peers is the best option, where possible. So it is welcome that Ontario finally appears to be making progress in that direction.

Taline Sagharian is one parent who says she is “optimistic” that wait lists can be reduced by transitioning kids into school, but she and other autism advocates still have significant issues with the government’s plans.

They have concerns, for example, over the benchmarks to determine when to transition kids from IBI to school; they question the quality of autism therapy training that school staff are getting; and they remain adamant that a child’s IBI therapist should be able to go to regular class with him or her.

Another complicating factor is that parents often try to hang on to IBI, which now has no age cut-off. That’s because, in Sagharian’s words, “life after IBI has been termed the void.”

For the school transition plan to work, the government will have to convince parents that is no longer the case.


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