This week The Toronto Star publishes a series of articles called ‘The Autism Project” which you can read online at www.thestar.com
American research now shows 1 in 88 children — 1 in 54 boys — is diagnosed with autism. The rising numbers mean it is impossible for teachers to go their entire career without autistic children in the class.
Five years ago, 7,000 Ontario public schoolchildren were identified as autistic. Today, that number has more than doubled. The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, estimates 1 in 88, or close to 3,000, is on the autism spectrum. The Durham District School Board puts their number at 1 in 75.
Canadian children, on average, are not diagnosed until age 4, after many have already started school. That means the majority of those kids will still not have received therapy.
Yet there is no mandatory teacher training in autism, or special education for regular classroom teachers. Teachers can take an elective course in university, or take extra courses once they start their careers, but they pay for those and take them on their own time.
Isabel Killoran, a professor at York University’s Faculty of Education and former special education teacher, says a teacher’s greatest challenge is that “no two children with autism are the same.”
She teaches a 36-hour course in special education, helping teachers learn common strategies that can help in class, depending on the child’s needs.
Children with autism think and learn differently. They need organization and structure, lessons in social skills and how to manage stress; they don’t tolerate a lot of noise and distractions.
Killoran’s big message though: behaviour is communication.
“It’s our job to be detective and figure out what’s triggering the behaviour. A lot of time it is something that’s environmental, something happening in the classroom.”
All school boards have an autism resource team — special education teachers, psychologists, speech language pathologists — to provide support to schools, but even school officials recognize it isn’t enough.
The Durham board launched its own autism training centre for teachers. It instructs them in how to set up a classroom to minimize distraction, how to use visual schedules so children with autism know what to expect, and how to anticipate an autistic child’s unruly behaviour. The program already has a waiting list.
Says Doug Crichton, the board’s superintendent of special education: “We’re working on the premise that in almost every classroom, certainly in every school, we’re going to have children with autism.”
Jackson started his first day at Danforth Collegiate in the fall with a map of the school his mother photocopied, highlighting the classrooms he needed to attend. No one was there to greet him or help navigate the unfamiliar building.
He enrolled in the school’s support program for students with autism, but actual support never materialized, says Ford.
“Jackson’s day is no different than any other student at that school.”
Denise Martins, the principal at Danforth Collegiate, said the school is doing the best it can based upon the staffing provided to us. The school’s support program includes one full-time and one part-time teacher, a child and youth worker and special needs assistant, and a social skills class runs over the lunch hour.
But Ford says it’s not the school or teachers that are to blame; she faults the board for not providing adequate resources. She says her son is being bullied by other students.
Other parents echo Ford’s frustrations with Ontario’s school system: one mother says she stopped working because of daily calls to pick up her son; another spent the night washing ink off her Grade 9 son after he was accosted by older boys; some parents decide to transfer their children to private school, spending thousands in tuition.
Janis Jaffe-White, co-ordinator of the Toronto Family Network, a volunteer group that supports families with special needs children, says the Ministry of Education could solve the problem, by monitoring school boards and enforcing its own policies.
“Inconsistency is a huge issue — there’s a lack of consistency within and across school boards. It’s one of the areas where there needs to be great improvement,” she says.
Without oversight, she says, “nothing will change.”