New autism supports for schools

The Canadian Press
Allison Jones

TORONTO–School boards will get additional money to support students with autism, Ontario’s education minister announced yesterday, as hundreds of kids soon may enter school because they will get less funding for therapy.
Autism and education advocates said the announcement does little to address a problem of the government’s own making and attempts to turn teachers into therapists.
Families say recently-announced changes to the Ontario Autism Program that will kick in April 1 mean many of those children currently in government-funded, full-time therapy instead will have to transition into school.
The government says there are 1,105 children with autism who are not in school.
Education minister Lisa Thompson said school boards will get an average of $12,300 for each new student with autism entering the school system in the remaining months of this school year.
“This funding will allow school boards to make sure there are proper supports available during the transition from therapy to school,” she announced in Ottawa.
The government is aiming to clear a wait list of 23,000 kids by spreading an existing pot of money to all children diagnosed with autism, instead of fully funding the treatment.
Families will get up to $20,000 per year for treatment for children under six and $5,000 a year for children aged six-18–with the maximum amounts available to families with incomes under $55,000–but intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year.
Many families say they will be unable to cover the difference to keep their kids in full-time therapy.
Thompson also announced the government will fully subsidize an ASD-specific additional qualification course for teachers, and an after-school skills development pilot project for students with autism will be expanded to all 72 school boards.
Parents and educators have been raising the alarm about what the autism funding changes will mean for the school system.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said more funding is needed for educational assistants–the classroom staff who are trained in behavioural therapy.
“To push this onto teachers rather than providing the supports for educational professionals is extremely troubling,” he said.
“They created a crisis with their changes to the autism funding and [applied behaviour analysis] therapy and now it seems like they’re simply downloading their obligations . . . to support these kids to school boards,” Hammond charged.
The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association called Thompson’s announcement a “step in the right direction” but said many boards already outspend their special education budget.
The government has indicated for weeks that no new supports were planned as a result of the new autism program, but Thompson didn’t say yesterday what had changed to prompt her announcement.
“We’re always out there talking and we’re listening and ultimately improving and moving forward, embracing best practices,” she said in an interview.
Hundreds of parents and advocates protested on the lawn of the legislature last week, calling for the government to fund autism therapy based on children’s individual needs, rather than just their age and family income.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said parents want funding for therapy, not a Band-Aid to address the impacts on schools.
“If they think that they’re going to fix this file by making one announcement today that says a couple of things, that proves to me they’re not really listening,” she argued.
The average $12,300-per-student funding normally is available to boards based on head counts twice a year (the next date is March 31) but the government said it will give boards that money for any student with autism that registers between April 1 and June.
The after-school program expansion will cost $6.1 million for the 2019-20 school year while the subsidized course will cost $1 million per year, Thompson’s office said.
It would not provide an estimate for how much additional per student funding will be provided because it is waiting to see how many of those students register for school.
Funding to the Geneva Centre for Autism to provide online training opportunities for educators also is being doubled, to $2 million.