Ontario’s public school boards want the province to review its controversial decision that children age 5 and over are no longer eligible for intensive autism treatment.
“We’re hoping the government will give careful reconsideration to changes being made,” Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said Wednesday.
“It’s never too late to correct a mistake,” he added.
Barrett said the new age cap was a topic of discussion among colleagues at an association board meeting last weekend who worried about how schools faced with shrinking special education budgets and staff will be able to support those students.
There has been no information from the Ministry of Education about a strategy or additional funds to support these children, many of whom have not been in school full time and now won’t receive the treatment they were promised, said Barrett. As a trustee for Durham District School Board, he has also been fielding calls from parents worried about how their children will cope in the classroom.
The new age ceiling, in effect this week, means 2,200 children will be taken off wait-lists for intensive behavioural intervention (IBI) over the next two years when they turn 5. Another 1,400 in treatment are being transitioned out.
The changes are part of a revamped Ontario autism program announced in March by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and sparked an immediate backlash from parents and advocates.
Over the last few days, unions representing teachers and educational assistants have also begun to speak out against the decision. CUPE Ontario, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Federation of Labour are among those joining parents at a Queen’s Park rally on Thursday held by the Ontario Autism Coalition to fight the changes, the second parent protest there in a month.
Many children affected by changes to IBI are already enrolled in school and will be supported by transition programs currently in place for children with autism, Nicole McInerney, spokesperson for the education ministry, said in an email.
She did not indicate whether specific information or funding will be provided to school boards, but noted, “boards are responsible for allocating the funding for programs and services as they are in the best position to determine the needs of their students at the local level.”
Barrett said the need for intensive supports does not end just because of age and called on the government to show “the same courageous leadership” demonstrated last month when it changed plans to close provincial schools for deaf students and those with severe learning disabilities.
Given that the changes to IBI affecting school-age children will have even greater impact, Barrett said he hopes the province will give it the same “thoughtful reconsideration.”
The distress and uncertainty for families of children taken off wait-lists has been compounded by the lack of information about what will replace the therapy they had counted on and what to expect through schools.
Children affected receive one-time funding of $8,000 for private services. (IBI comparable to what the province offers costs roughly $50,000 a year.) They will also be eligible for an “enhanced” applied behaviour analysis (ABA) program to be rolled out in a year. But no details have been released.
The ABA program “will be expanded to be more flexible and intensive, based on children’s individual needs” and regardless of age, Aly Vitunski, spokesperson for children’s minister Tracy MacCharles, said Wednesday in an email.