No easy answers in autism debate

Posted on May 15, 2008 in Education Debates, Health Debates – comment/editorial – No easy answers in autism debate
May 15, 2008

Bruce McIntosh captures the weariness of many parents of autistic children when he says he is “tired of this fight.” McIntosh, whose 8-year-old son is autistic, joined other parents at Queen’s Park this week to demand the government cut long waiting lists for intensive behavioural intervention (IBI), and provide the costly therapy in schools.

Their frustration is understandable. It is generally thought that the earlier IBI starts, the better. Yet many autistic children languish on waiting lists for years before getting public funding. So many families pay for therapy themselves, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

But the issues aren’t quite as black and white as they appear.

True, the number of children waiting for IBI (1,148) has skyrocketed since the Liberals came to office in 2003 and rivals the number of children actually receiving funding for the therapy (1,404).

But those figures mask the fact that the McGuinty government has more than tripled autism spending, and the number of children getting IBI funding has nearly tripled. The paradox is explained, in part, by the government’s 2005 decision to stop cutting off therapy once a child turns 6. This move dramatically increased the pool of eligible children. Speedier assessments also stretched the wait list.

Those explanations provide no comfort to parents of children waiting for funding. But they do show the McGuinty government has not ignored the problem. Far from it.

What happens when autistic children are old enough to go to school is just as thorny. Parents say they are forced to make an “impossible choice” between therapy and public education because IBI is not offered in schools. Some have asked the courts to intervene on the issue.

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne last year directed all school boards to provide a specialized instructional method tailored to autistic students. The Liberal election platform also included a $10 million pledge to prepare schools to deliver IBI therapy “on-site.”

But it is far from clear if that means IBI therapists will work with autistic children in regular classrooms, as some parents want, or in separate rooms within the school. Whichever path the province takes, a philosophical clash looms between those who argue IBI should be integrated into classrooms (mainly parents), and those who worry its one-on-one focus makes it unsuitable, and even disruptive, in a classroom setting (including many teachers and school administrators).

There are no easy answers to these issues. But the best chance for a solution lies in constructive talks between parents, school boards and government officials.

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