The McGuinty government recently announced a plan to expand supports for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) would like to see these supports available for all children, regardless of the school system they belong to.
“This autism issue is about individual children and our belief is that help for those children ought to follow the children,” says John Vanasselt, director of communications at the OACS.
Education Minister Kathleen Wynne and Children and Youth Service Minister Mary Anne Chambers made a joint announcement about the additional special education reforms on February 23. The reforms are based on the recommendations of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Reference Group, which includes parents, researchers and educators.
“It is essential that we help children and youth with autism from the day they are diagnosed right through their school years,” said Chambers. “Parents are eager to have their children attend school with the appropriate supports.”
Vanasselt refers to statistics indicating that parents, regardless of the school systems their children attend, are indeed eager to have appropriate supports available for their children.
“We have statistics showing that in the last two years 32 families with children along the [autism] spectrum didn’t enroll their children [in OACS schools] because they didn’t think that there was the level of support available,” he says.
OACS schools receive no government funding for educational special needs. If a child has a developmental delay, cognitive disorder or behavioural disorder, he/she cannot access government-funded resources and supports at the school.
Vanasselt notes that the OACS has been campaigning for both educational and other supports for children in independent schools for the past forty years. In the 1990s the OACS in conjunction with the Canadian Jewish Congress went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in an attempt to obtain health support services for students. In 1996 the Court ruled that provinces could support children in independent schools if they chose to, but they were not required to do so.
Subsequent, active lobbying led to an announcement in 1999 by the former government to begin a health support program for independent schools. Now if a child attending an independent school requires physiotherapy, occupational therapy, or speech language therapy because of a medical condition, some support is available through the community care access centres, which are funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
“It’s a very complicated little maze that we have to work through, between and among different ministries and so on,” says Vanasselt. “Because the Ministry of Health doesn’t do anything about education, if they make a determination that a child’s problem is not medical, then we get nothing.”
Vanasselt adds that there is no indication that these latest autism supports will extend to children attending independent schools. The OACS has written to both Ministries to ask about eligibility for these supports. No response has been received from the Ministry of Education to date. The Ministry of Community and Social Services has replied that the supports are only available for publicly funded schools.
“Any support for special needs children ought to follow those children, rather than only following the children who happen to be in a certain location at a certain time, such as public schools,” says Vanasselt. “The dilemma is that they seem to be supporting systems rather than students. As a matter of fact, that’s what Mary Anne Chambers said, ‘Our government is committed to supporting the publicly funded education system’.”
Vanasselt notes that this is not an adequate answer to the government’s lack of supports for children with ASD in independent schools.
The OACS represents 79 schools and 14,000 students. A study last fall revealed that 49 students enrolled in these schools have some form of autism.