While the Nova Scotia government injects millions into class caps and pre-primary programming, parents of students with autism say their children are being left behind.
Three families from the Halifax area say despite advice from professionals, their children started this school year with a reduction in the amount of in-class support they receive from teaching assistants.
Autism Nova Scotia says it is seeing a spike in similar complaints across the province compared to last year.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in reduced support this year,” Autism Nova Scotia executive director Cynthia Carroll said.
In part, she says the pared-down help for some children is due to an overall increase in the number of students entering school with autism.
But parents on the front lines say the system shouldn’t be set up in a way that one child’s access to a teaching assistant directly impacts another child’s access.
“I don’t understand how [the funding] was there last year and now it’s not,” said Rachelle Howard, whose son teaching assistant was cut without her being told ahead of time.
Two weeks into the school year, Howard says she still hasn’t been told how deep the cut was.
“I’m upset and I’m frustrated ,” she said.
All three families that spoke with Global News said they thought their child’s school was doing the best it could with the resources available.
The province says it has hired more teaching assistants again this year. Education Minister Zach Churchill says there appears to be a deeper problem, since the government keeps adding resources but there are still cases where parents say their students are going without help.
For example, the Halifax Regional School Board said it increased the number of educational program assistants (or teaching assistants) by 112.6 full-time positions since 2014-15.
The school board says the number of students with special needs is also on the rise but it didn’t say whether the proportion of teaching assistants to students with special needs has changed.
“That’s telling me there’s a broader systemic challenge here that we need to tackle and we are committed to doing that,” Churchill said.
To address those problems, Churchill says the work of the inclusion commission is “critical.” The commission is expected to give recommendations to change a system that it says is in dire need of fixing.
However, Churchill says the changes in support aren’t always due to a lack of resources because there are other factors, such as promoting student independence.
“There’s some instances where resources are allocated to a different student because the folks want to ensure that there’s a higher level of independence with a particular student,” he said. “Kind of weaning them off of those supports.”
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Parent Jen Morris says her daughter Sadie’s teaching assistant was also cut this year, and with only a few days notice before the start of the school year. She says the cut doesn’t match her daughter’s needs.
“Her autism doesn’t go away so she can learn independence from 10 to 11,” Morris said.
“Just as a child needs glasses 24 hours a day, she needs the same level of support because her disability is static.”
Morris compared the role her daughter’s teaching assistant plays to a visually impaired child’s consistent need for glasses — each is needed to make sense of what’s happening in the classroom.
Autism Nova Scotia says without adequate and consistent supports, students are at risk of falling behind in school. Moreover, for some students who are a flight risk or have other needs, the advocacy group says there’s the added question of safety.
“These are all things that families worry about, it keeps them up at night,” Carroll said.
She says a key concern for Autism Nova Scotia is the “inconsistency in the program planning process.” Carroll says that includes how schools decide the level of support a student will get and how parents are involved in those decisions.
Allison Garber’s son Hugh had his teaching assistant cut from 80 per cent coverage to 50 per cent coverage at the beginning of school.
She says her son is a flight risk and was assessed as needing 100 per cent support in school. After she pushed back, his support was brought back up to 80 per cent, but she says that presents another challenge.
“I worry, where did that extra 30 per cent come from. Was it taken from another child?” she said. “So it’s almost like this hunger games of parenting.”
“It shouldn’t be a lottery in terms of who gets appropriate supports. You would never do that with a physical disability and you shouldn’t do that with a developmental or intellectual disability.”
Carroll encouraged parents and students to share their ideas and experiences with the inclusion commission when consultations get underway this fall.
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