Sweeping report being released Tuesday seeks improved training for teachers and review of funding formula. By Andrea Gordon, Education Reporter
Tues., April 4, 2017
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, Vice President of the Ontario Autism Coalition, releases the “New Horizons” report which provides recommendations to improve outcomes for students with autism in Ontario schools. (Broadcast and Recording Service Legislative Assembly of Ontario/Toronto Star)
A key autism advocacy group wants more mandatory special education courses in Ontario teachers’ colleges and an overhaul of special ed funding to ensure that money goes directly to students who face “numerous systemic barriers” in their classrooms.
In a sweeping report to be released Tuesday, the Ontario Autism Coalition is also calling for funds to hire more educational assistants and properly train staff who work with children on the autism spectrum, as well as the launch of a new autism demonstration school for children needing intensive support.
The 34-page report from the grassroots group comes at a time when autism rates are climbing with one of every 68 children currently being diagnosed and special ed services for all students with disabilities cannot keep up with demand.
Recent changes to Ontario’s autism program including an age cap on treatment means there is a wave of young children entering school who “will therefore require intensive support,” according to the report.
“Teacher candidates should graduate knowing they will work regularly with students with exceptionalities and they should embrace this opportunity rather than fear or avoid it,” says the report, written with input from the coalition’s youth advisory committee of 70 autistic teens and young adults.
The paper comes two months after Ontario elementary teachers sounded the alarm about the “critical lack of support” in schools for students with special needs.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, with husband, Bruce McIntosh, is lead author on a report calling for dozens of new recommendations to improve the education system for children with autism. They are shown at an announcement at Queen’s Park in June about the Ontario Autism Program. (Melissa Renwick / Toronto Star File Photo)
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter told the Star Monday the province is very committed to ensuring that children with autism receive the support they need.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said the situation has led to a spike in violent episodes among children with serious behavioural issues that puts all students at risk, and urged the province to step up supports for special education and mental health services.
The new report Tuesday, following consultations with teachers’ unions and other disability organizations, stresses that services are inconsistent across the province, with some boards offering specialized classrooms and intensive supports “while others have virtually nothing.”
“Under the current regime, the level of support that a student receives may depend more on their postal code than on their level of individual need.”
Lead author Laura Kirby-McIntosh says the group’s 36 new recommendations plus its endorsement of 30 made previously by other disability advocates and teachers represents “the combined expertise” of parents and young people with autism.
“It’s the first attempt to say (to the province) ‘based on our experience, this is what you should do instead, this is what would make it better,’ ” says Kirby-McIntosh, who has two teenagers on the autism spectrum and has been a teacher for 20 years.
The paper argues that with the recent extension of teachers’ college to two years from the previous one-year program, all teacher candidates should take at least one mandatory course in special education, beginning in September 2018. In addition, they must be required to complete at least one practicum placement in a special education setting in a school or outside agency.
Making sure teachers are equipped with more knowledge is a key piece for Elsbeth Dodman, 28, an artist and self-described autistic advocate who was diagnosed at 14.
Dodman recalls being bullied throughout elementary school and often overlooked or yelled at by impatient teachers who didn’t understand her behaviour and way of communicating.
When she drew constantly in class to help herself focus and relieve anxiety, she was accused of “not paying attention” and barked at to “put that down.” Sometimes she fled to hide in the bathroom when the classroom became too overwhelming.
More training wouldn’t just help students like her, she says, it would be a “step to empowerment” for teachers if they were provided with the strategies and knowledge to help them.
Currently, special education is included in “core content” in the bachelor of education curriculum. However, the Ontario College of Teachers does not designate a specific credit or course duration for the core content areas, according to spokesperson Brian Jamieson, so “approaches and content vary from institution to institution.”
“A lot of what we’re asking for I don’t think involves a massive amount of money, a lot of it is bureaucratic change,” says Kirby-McIntosh, citing as examples funding that goes directly to students instead of administration or use of costly outside consultants.
Among other recommendations to Education Minister Mitzie Hunter:
- Review education funding within one year, with the goal of reforming it so that money allocated to special education is spent on those students. The coalition also calls for a mechanism that would hold the Ministry of Education and school boards to account when that money doesn’t reach those kids.
- Update the policy that allows the use of applied behavioural analysis (ABA) to help students learn, and make it mandatory so that students get consistent support from outside therapists and in school.
- Provide ongoing training and support for staff about the assistive technology some students use to communicate and streamline the process so students can more easily access the devices they need.
- Allow behavioural therapists trained to work with autistic children to come into classrooms and work with students as needed, and to participate in designing their educational supports.
- Ensure students have a voice in their education and supports, and that they be informed in language they understand when decisions are being made on their behalf by parents and teachers.
On Monday, Hunter told the Star the government “is very committed to ensuring that children with autism receive the support that they need,” noting there are 20,000 students with autism enrolled in Ontario public schools.
While “we know there is more to do,” she noted that students with autism are attending post-secondary at four times the rate of 2009.
“We are seeing better outcomes for those students,” she said.
The province is also providing ABA training to teachers, and Hunter hopes to see similar training for those in teacher education programs.
“I fully support that, and that’s some of the input that we’ve been receiving, and we are working together with the ministry to provide that.”
With files from Kristin Rushowy