Parents, educators, and Ontario's official opposition party are standing together as the Ford government continues to roll out changes to the province's autism services.
Education minister Lisa Thompson announced on March 11 that Ontario school boards will be getting additional funding to help with hundreds of new students with autism who are expected to arrive in public school classrooms next month.
As many as 8,400 children will be kicked out of the Ontario Autism Program (OAP) starting on April 1 and will be integrated into the public school system. Thompson announced that the government will provide schools with $12,300 per new student.
The Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC) was not consulted prior to this announcement. The OAC first requested a meeting with the minister to address autism supports in schools, including behaviour training for education assistants, shortly after she was sworn in.
"Additional qualification training for teachers and a single professional development day miss the mark in terms of preparing classroom staff to use Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) in classrooms," said a news release from the OAC.
In Sudbury, parents of children with autism have formed the Northern Ontario Autism Alliance and have rallied twice in the past month against changes to the Ontario Autism Program that will see a shift from needs-based funding to an age and income-based model.
While the early estimate on the number of children who will be taken out of the OAP and moved into the public school system is around 8,400, the funding appears to apply only to new students, as many autistic children are already attending public school on a part-time basis and will not qualify for the funding when they are shifted to full-time.
Sudbury parent Sara Kitlar-Pothier was the organizer of the March 7 rally at Sudbury MPP Jamie West's office, and her five-year-old son is already in a classroom setting, in the Intensive Support Program (ISP).
"His teachers, ECEs and support staff are supportive of his needs and I am confident that they do the best they can within the system they are provided," said Kitlar-Pothier. "I fully support them and appreciate everything they do."
Kitlar-Pothier issued a statement on behalf of the Northern Ontario Autism Alliance on March 12, stating that the group believes that while the supports announced by Lisa Thompson are positive ones, they are not a replacement for ABA services.
"They would work best combined with appropriate therapy for these students," said Kitlar-Pothier in the statement. "They are not an equal replacement. This announcement does not address the gap created between ABA services and schools."
The Northern Ontario Autism Alliance will be hosting a town hall meeting at the Countryside Arena on March 14 from 6-8 p.m. Attending Thursday's meeting will be Liana Holm, vice president of the ETFO Rainbow Teacher Local.
Holm says that the latest announcement by the Ontario government is little more than a Band-Aid solution and will create more stress on the system.
"When you put additional students into the classroom you create additional stress on both the teachers and the students," said Holm. "Unless those students come with extra support, which I have not heard one thing about extra support in our classrooms, there's going to be extra stress. I can't see it being a good thing."
Holm has a teaching background herself and spent the majority of her career teaching children with special needs, including children with autism.
"I have an additional qualification in special education with a specialist in kids with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), but that doesn't anywhere near qualify me to do IBI (Intensive Behavioural Intervention) in the the classroom," said Holm.
"To become fluent in the IBI training requires a masters degree and about 1,500 more hours to become a qualified IBI specialist over and above your teaching degree. I would venture a guess that we don't have any teachers at the Rainbow Board who are equipped with that designation. There may be some at the board office, but nowhere near what we need with the influx of kids coming in, we can't deliver that. If the government thinks that we are going to be able to deliver the same kind of training then they are sadly mistaken."
The education minister said in her announcement that the province will boost training for teachers — both online and as “additional qualification” courses — and also give school boards money to expand after-school programs for students with autism.
Marit Stiles, Ontario NDP Education critic, said the Ford Conservatives’ announcement falls woefully short of what will be needed as cuts to autism services send an influx of kids with high needs into the school system on April 1.
“(This) announcement does little to reassure educators and parents who are worried about how our under-resourced school system will support the influx of kids with high needs who will be spending more time in the classroom starting in April,” said Stiles.
“Lots of classrooms are already struggling with big class sizes and diverse student needs. Teachers and support workers are already run off their feet. This moderate change to how funding is accessed in not unwelcome — but it’s cold comfort to students, teachers, support workers and parents."
The timing of the announcement stuck out as a point of concern for Holm as well, who says that it's unusual to be adding kids into classes this late on in the school year.
"This is hurting students. If it were me doing it, I would personally never do this in the last half of the year, "said Holm.
"It speaks to the fact that the budget is coming out soon and they've already told us that they want to cut $4 billion out of education, so I think this is just the beginning. That's my guess and I'll never assume to know what they're thinking, but this looks like the beginning of funding that's going to be cut for all kinds of things."
Last week, hundreds of parents gathered at Queen’s Park to protest changes to the Ontario Autism Program. The NDP has raised the experiences and fears of numerous families at Queen’s Park — but the premier has refused to reverse the cut.
“Every child should have an opportunity to go to school, and children with autism deserve to be properly supported inside the classroom, and out, so that they’re able to do that,” said Monique Taylor, Ontario NDP critic for Children and Youth Services.
“The Ontario NDP will keep up the fight to give back to families with children with autism the services and supports their kids need to reach their fullest potential.”