Ontario parents worry about special education support

Changes to autism services mean an influx of kids needing added help in the classroom.

High school student Eric Segal, who has autism, is shown with his service dog Azra. His mother Sharon Gabison, says parents have to fight hard for kids with special needs to get what they need in school.
High school student Eric Segal, who has autism, is shown with his service dog Azra. His mother Sharon Gabison, says parents have to fight hard for kids with special needs to get what they need in school.  (VINCE TALOTTA / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)  

Special education — and particularly autism supports — are expected to be front and centre for schools and parents as Ontario students head back to their classrooms this week.

“The pressure is definitely building, because the needs are there and the numbers (of special needs students) are higher,” says Marg Spoelstra, executive director of the research and advocacy group Autism Ontario.

Recent changes to the province’s autism services for children will result in an influx of students coming to school who need additional supports, she added.

But there’s a long way to go before those Ontario students get the help they are entitled to, whether it’s one-on-one educational assistants or more teachers trained to use the principles of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) that are effective for many children on the autism spectrum and others.

Under the province’s revamped autism program, children 5 and over are no longer eligible to join wait lists for intensive autism treatment covered by the province. They can apply for the new and less intensive ABA program, but that doesn’t launch until next year.

The back-to-school ritual gets nerves jangling in many households. But for parents like Sharon Gabison of Maple, the anxiety is even higher as she worries about what the transition will be like for her son Eric, 19, who has autism.

“What’s going to happen to him at school?” she says she wonders each September. “Is he going to be looked after? Is his teacher going to understand him and what he needs? Is someone going to make sure he eats his lunch?”

Eric loves school and doesn’t have behavioural issues. But habits such as the way he talks to himself to soothe his anxiety can be disruptive, and that’s one of the many occasions he needs extra support.

Like many parents, Gabison has spent years fighting to get her son the accommodations that are his legal right so that he can learn to his potential. She says parents like her who are vocal advocates are too often labelled “troublemakers” by schools.

“The biggest issue right now is our kids aren’t receiving the education they are entitled to be receiving,” says Gabison, a physical therapist and executive with the parent advocacy group the Ontario Autism Coalition.

Both Autism Ontario’s Marg Spoelstra and Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, say concern about the shortage of special ed services is the primary reason parents contact their advocacy organizations.

In a 2014 People for Education report, half of Ontario’s elementary school principals said they have told students with special needs to stay home from school for all or part of the day, primarily because they don’t have enough special ed staff. It found an average of 37 students with special needs for every special ed teacher.

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter is pictured inside her office in the Mowat Block on Bay Street.
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter is pictured inside her office in the Mowat Block on Bay Street.  (NAKITA KRUCKER)  

Ontario’s education minister has vowed that improving the special ed system is a priority for the new school year.

“I’m working with my team to look at what is the strategy, how are we meeting the needs, what are those needs that we must respond to,” Mitzie Hunter told the Star in an interview this summer following her appointment to the portfolio in June. “We have to do this in discussion with our education partners.”

The province will spend $2.76 billion on special education this year, according to the ministry, but it is up to school boards to allocate those funds to schools and programs. Many advocates argue it would be more effective to allocate specific funds to each child based on their needs.

“It is a reality that every board in the province is probably spending well outside and beyond their special education funding,” said Tony Pontes, director of education for the Peel District School Board.

That situation “speaks to the overall question of whether or not special education funding, period, is sufficient given the needs in our schools.”

The number of Ontario students with autism jumped to almost 19,000 students in 2013-14 from fewer than 5,000 in 2002-03, according to Ministry of Education statistics. And that’s only part of the special needs population.

The Durham District School Board is so stretched that last year Trustee Donna Edwards launched its “One in Four: Fund the Need” drive on behalf of the one-quarter of its student population that need special ed support.

A groundbreaking report written by children and youth with special needs last spring found many youth felt shut out by educators who had low expectations of them. A common complaint was that they didn’t get the critical supports they needed to learn and succeed, said the report, led by Ontario Children’s Advocate Irwin Elman.

Change is the biggest challenge for many children with autism and other special needs. So the Ontario Autism Coalition will be pushing for better services to provide a “seamless transition” as children move from autism treatment into public schools, says president Bruce McIntosh, who has two teens on the spectrum.

This spring the group fought the province over a decision to remove kids 5 and older from wait lists and out of intensive treatment, leaving them without services they’d been promised. That campaign, dubbed #autismdoesntendat5, prompted the government to back down.

Now, the group has launched its next phase: #autismdoesntendatschool.

Giving students with special needs the support they need to learn “makes the classroom better for everyone,” says McIntosh, because it means less disruption and a more productive environment.