‘There is a tsunami headed for the school system’: Autism program changes raise concerns about effects on schools

Laura Kirby-McIntosh (right), president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, speaks as autism parent Maria Galito listens in at a news conference at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Monday, November 12, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO – Changes to Ontario’s autism program are raising concerns that thousands of autistic children who will receive fewer hours of therapy will be pushed into schools unable to properly accommodate them.

The government announced last week that in order to clear a backlog of 23,000 children waiting for publicly funded autism therapy, families will get up to $140,000 to pay for treatment, though funding will be subject to an annual cap of $20,000 for kids five and under, and $5,000 for kids six to 18. But intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year, advocates say.

Parents, advocates and some within the school system say if children with autism who are currently in intensive therapy no longer have those costs fully covered, they will be in classrooms before they’ve had the chance to develop necessary skills. That also means already-stretched educational assistant resources will be spread even thinner, they say.

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“There is a tsunami headed for the school system,” said Ontario Autism Coalition president Laura Kirby-McIntosh, who is also a teacher.

“Somewhere out there there’s a kid that’s going to get off the school property that’s going to get seriously hurt or worse. Somewhere there’s going to be a kid that’s going to be restrained for too long and is going to be seriously hurt. There’s an education worker who’s going to set off a kid who goes into a massive meltdown and someone’s going to get really hurt.”

Educational assistants who work in classrooms with special needs children do their best, parents say, but it’s not the same as therapy.

“There is no replacement for one-on-one, consistent, quiet, individualized learning,” said Kristen Ellison, whose eight-year-old son is in therapy 25 hours a week and attends school part-time. She worries what it will mean if her son and others need to share existing educational assistant support.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson’s office said the ministry will continue to work with school boards to help students transition between community-based Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy and school, “where they will be supported by ABA instructional methods, as appropriate, and enhance the capacity of educators in supporting students with (autism spectrum disorder).”

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About $3 billion is going toward special education in 2018-19, and a spokeswoman said they “will have more to say on further supports in the coming months.”

The president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said schools will do their best to serve every child, but there is already a need for more special education funding.

“Year after year boards are saying, ‘We need more help with this,”‘ said Cathy Abraham. “I don’t know of a single school board in this province that does not overspend what the ministry gives us for special education.”

Jeff Moco’s eight-year-old son is in school now, doing some therapy outside of class time, but that’s due to three years of intensive therapy to build skills including speech, frustration tolerance and toileting, he said.

“If he didn’t do that, the amount of staff that would be required for him to function just in that environment now, it wouldn’t be an option,” Moco said.

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Laura Walton with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 55,000 education workers, worries about what will happen when children who have been in intensive therapy start spending more hours in school.

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“The numbers that we currently have, we will not be able to service these children in the way that we want to,” she said. “I would suggest that it’s going to put pressures on an already pressured system, and I’m not seeing anything that makes me think that the government has taken this into consideration.”

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Educational assistants do not receive funding for professional development, said Walton, and many pay out of pocket for training to help them work with children on the autism spectrum.

A survey of more than 2,300 EAs represented by CUPE last year found that 60 per cent were already working with five or more students. Fewer than eight per cent said they worked with only one student.

The unions representing elementary and high school teachers say the government’s new autism program falls short.

“A significant increase in the number of specialized support staff in our schools is essential if we want to provide all the support that students with special needs require and deserve,” said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

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The government has framed the previous autism program as unfair, as 8,400 children were receiving support while 23,000 waited. But many parents whose children are on the wait list are unhappy with the changes. They say that while the wait was frustrating, at the end their kids would get the therapy they need.

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“What they’re telling us now is we’re going to wait the same amount of time and then you’ll get money, but it’s a fraction of the money,” said Stacy Kennedy, whose son has been on the wait list since July 2017.

“As a taxpayer I want other taxpayers to know that the services that kids aren’t getting any longer in their homes or through service providers will then be pushed into schools, and the education system isn’t ready for that.”

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