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A New Brunswick mother’s fight to get more classroom supports for son with autism

Click to play video: 'Educational assistant shortage impacting students in New Brunswick'
Educational assistant shortage impacting students in New Brunswick
A New Brunswick woman says she is surprised to learn her eight-year-old son no longer has an educational assistant at school. Since then, she says her son has regressed and it has put more pressure on her and her son’s teacher. Callum Smith reports. – Jun 3, 2021

A New Brunswick woman says her son, who is on the autism spectrum, has regressed since losing his education assistant (EA) in the classroom.

Leigha Ouellet says her son Dominic, 8, is having more outbursts since losing his EA earlier this school year, similar to those when he was younger.

“He’ll have meltdowns … He’ll cry. Sometimes he’s hard to get out of it,” Ouellet says.

“The other day when he had one of his meltdowns, he actually left the class and the hallway and the teacher … it took her a bit to find him in the school, so she was very upset about that which is understandable.”

But those meltdowns are becoming more aggressive, she says.

“If he gets frustrated or upset about something, he’ll bite his arms, he’ll hit his head against the walls, things like that,” Ouellet says. “When there’s an EA there, it’s mitigated, it’s not as bad. They can help calm him down.”

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Dominic, Evergreen Park School student, is lovable, intelligent and full of energy, but needs the support his mom says.

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He had an EA for the full year in kindergarten, but lost the assistance partway through the year in grade one and this year, in grade two, his mom says.

When he doesn’t get the additional support, Dominic says it’s “very frustrating… Because I need help. I get really angry.”

‘Rapid increase’ in EA demand: Minister

An educational assistant is a support person in the classroom, helping teachers “in meeting instructional and personal needs of students,” according to the province’s inclusive education policy.

Educational assistants are part of what Education Minister Dominic Cardy calls “a human resources shortfall” across the whole education system.

In 2019, Global News reported the Anglophone East School District faced a $2-million budget shortfall for hiring EAs in the 2019-2020 school year, meaning it was short by about 60 positions across the district.

In an interview with Global News Thursday, Cardy says the province is undertaking a review of its inclusion policy, Policy 322, which is expected to be completed over the “summer into early fall.”

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“It’s something that comes up repeatedly from teachers,” Cardy says. “They support inclusion but they don’t feel in many cases they have the tools to make it work.”

He says the province needs to determine “root causes for this very rapid increasing demand for EAs” and ensure students in the system “get the help that they need.”

The acting superintendent of the Anglophone East School District wasn’t available for an interview Wednesday, but a spokesperson said the province has provided funding for 454.5 EA positions.

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“We currently have 525 EAs working in our district,” says Stephanie Patterson, director of communications.

The personal impact

But it’s difficult to hear of stories of stories like Dominic’s, Minister Cardy says.

“My heart breaks for those parents and for the kids too, and for the teachers who, I know feel when they can’t help their students in the way they want to, feel a sense of guilt and that somehow they’re responsible … They’re not,” he says. “They’re doing the absolute best that they can.”

But the lack of support is still difficult for Ouellet and Dominic.

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“I know it’s hard for them too because they just don’t have the staff they really need, but you know, when it’s affecting my son, and his education, it’s really tough,” she says.

“All the hard work we’ve put in for years to get him to where he is at … it feels like it’s all being taken away,” Ouellet says.

An hour-long assessment was done for Dominic Wednesday, she says.

Ouellet is hopeful that could mean an EA will be reinstated for her son soon.

Click to play video: 'Autism Nova Scotia calls for better accommodations for special needs students'
Autism Nova Scotia calls for better accommodations for special needs students

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