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Education Ontario government announces new supports for schools ahead of change to autism program

The Ontario government says it will provide more training for teachers to support students with autism, but parents and educators worry that it will do little to help children with complex needs who will be required to enter the school system.

A change to the province’s autism program will come into effect April 1 and is expected to bring more high-needs children into classrooms full-time. Only in recent days has the government begun asking school districts to estimate the enrollment changes and detail what supports are in place for students with autism.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson said in a news conference in Ottawa on Monday that the government will subsidize an additional qualification course for teachers on supporting students with autism, but that won’t happen until the fall. Additionally, Ms. Thompson said she is asking school boards to dedicate a professional activity day for teachers on how to support children with autism.

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Her announcement comes as the Progressive Conservative government is changing the autism program. The government said it will allocate funds based on the age of children and household income, spreading it among all families and clearing the waiting list of 23,000 children.

But the change will also mean that families who currently receive full financial support for intensive therapy in private or community-based settings will no longer get as much. Many of these children currently attend school on a modified schedule, and parents have said cuts in funding will leave them with little choice but to send their children to school more frequently, even full-time.

Ms. Thompson said on Monday that school districts will receive about $12,300 in funding for newly enrolled students with autism who are transitioning from therapy programs (there is no additional funds for children who currently attend school only a few days a week and will move to full-time). The amount is typical per-pupil funding that school boards receive for each student enrolled, but under the existing formula, districts don’t get funding for any new student who enrolls after March 31.

Ms. Thompson said the funding will allow school boards to make sure there are “proper supports available during the transition from therapy to school.”

The government has faced criticism from parents and autism advocates since it announced changes to the autism program on Feb. 6. Principals have said that they have been fielding calls from parents, worried about how their children will be supported in schools. Several school districts and teachers’ groups have called on the province to delay the changes until the proper supports are in place.

Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said Monday’s announcement will not make up for the cuts to the program.

“The promised funding to help with the transition of students with autism into the school setting does not extend beyond this school year. It is clear that the government still does not understand the challenges being faced by teachers and schools, and the significant investments that are needed to ensure all students can realize their full potential,” Ms. Stuart said.

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Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, which advocates for families, said the government is not increasing funding for special education, which stands at $3-billion, for the next academic year, nor has it provided more training for educational assistants or increased the number of them who work in schools.

“I’m astonished that there was not a single time in this announcement that the Minister of Education mentioned educational assistants. They are the front-line staff for our kids,” Ms. Kirby-McIntosh said.

She added: “All that this [announcement] does is it dumps the responsibility for autism therapy onto the schools. Teachers are not therapists.”

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said districts are still reviewing the information but she welcomed additional supports. “I know our staff will do all they can to welcome [students with autism] and find success in our schools even with this late announcement of funding,” she said.

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