‘The supports aren’t there’: Experts say schools aren’t ready for autism program changes
Published Friday, March 29, 2019 7:04PM EDT
“The supports aren’t there. The transition plan isn’t in place. Somebody’s going to get hurt.”
Jennifer Van Gennip gets choked up thinking about her 12-year-old son Noah, attending school full time.
Noah was diagnosed with autism when he was three. Jennifer says, while he does go to school half-days, the time he spends in one-to-one therapy at IBI are when he learns the most.
“He’s left school before. He’s stood in traffic before. (At IBI) he can learn the way he learns best, in an environment where he’s safe. I don’t have to worry.”
Classrooms will soon see an influx of students with autism. It's a new reality that the province’s 72 school boards say they need more time, and direction, to prepare for.
“We do not provide therapeutic services. We provide educational instruction,” says Simcoe County District School Board Chair, Jodi Lloyd.
Lloyd goes on to say the board’s special education budget is already exhausted, and teachers are not equipped to replace therapists.
“We are not funded for that. We are not staffed for that, and that is not our goal as a school board, that’s why these agencies exist,” says Lloyd.
Intensive therapy has benefitted Noah immensely. Jennifer says he currently only spends 20 minutes a day in a regular classroom setting, and when he becomes agitated, he lashes out.
“Noah struggles in school,” she says. “If Noah is having a meltdown, his safety plan kicks in,” Jennifer says the teacher will move students into the hall while Noah calms down.
“If he’s having a hard time it’s easier to move 28 compliant kids than to move one non-compliant kid,” causing a disruption to learning.
Jennifer says she wants people to know that this is not just an issue for families of children with autism; it will affect every child in the school system. “Nobody is going to benefit from having kids who are not equipped and ready to be in a classroom be there.” She says Ontario’s plan “doesn’t seem to be well thought out.”
The province announced new money earlier this month to help school boards support students with autism who are integrating into the classroom. But officials say there’s no real transition plan in place, and next to no communication, prompting the school board, and its special education advisory committee, to send a letter to Education Minister Lisa Thompson, asking for more guidance and communication.
They wrote, “We fear that without appropriate supports and transitions, some children could lose important clinical gains.”
A notion Jennifer echoes, saying it’s not a matter of ‘if’ these kids will regress, but ‘when.’ “We’re talking about kids who have become toilet-trained through IBI but are told right now, yes they can come to school, but they have to put on a pull-up. That’s a lost skill. That’s one very small example of a lost skill that’s built into this kind of transition.”
The changes made to the Ontario Autism Program take effect on Monday. The government says there are 1,105 children with autism who are not in school.
Simcoe County District School Board Chair, Jodi Lloyd, says they need open communication with parents of children with autism entering schools, saying they are on the same page, but admits there are limitations.
“We want the same things,” says Lloyd. “But we also have to acknowledge that we have to work within funding limits. We have to work within our budget limits, and we also have limited staff.”
Lloyd also has a special request for parents of children with autism. She hopes they can notify the school board that they plan to register their child, even if it’s not until the fall, so that the board can start hiring staff to accommodate these students’ needs as best as it can.