Plan won't help severely affected autism students
My experiences as a supply education assistant (EA) in the early 1990s weighed heavily on my mind as I listened to Ontario Minister of Education Lisa Thompson make her Enhancing Education Support: A Plan for Students with Autism announcement last week. The accompanying news release highlighted the government’s plans to increase supports “so school boards will be prepared to help ensure students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) feel safe and supported in their classrooms.”
While providing professional development for teachers and expanding after-school skill development programs may help some, I’m doubtful it will even scratch the surface of what the most severely affected need.
Autism Ontario describes ASD as “ … a lifelong neurological disorder that affects the way a person communicates and relates to the people and world around them. ASD can affect behaviour, social interactions, and one’s ability to communicate verbally.” But since ASD is a spectrum disorder, the severity of the effect will vary tremendously from person to person.
When I was a supply EA, I worked with students at many points on the spectrum, often in a self-contained classroom. My experiences included standing between an enraged, non-verbal student grabbing and throwing books off a bookcase and other students while they evacuated the room, accompanying a student wherever they went to make sure they didn’t pick anything up off the ground and put it in their mouth, helping a student organize a prized memorabilia collection while trying to teach them not to stroke my shoulder length hair and sitting next to a student in a regular class to help them stay focused during lessons and organized during seatwork.
The term ASD was not used then so I was told these students were autistic or, in milder cases, had pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).
My EA responsibilities were limited to one or two students and there was no expectation I would also instruct a class. While I did important work, most days my responsibilities did not include what I imagined teaching to be. Many hours were spent helping students develop basic life skills, such as eating.
After I became a teacher, I completed my specialist in special education with additional qualifications in gifted education, learning disabilities and advanced learning disabilities. While this additional training helped me design lessons and instruct using techniques that were more inclusive, there was a limit to its effectiveness.
Factors such as number of students with special needs, the severity of the special needs and size of the rest of the class affected what I could accomplish.
With my training, I was able to support more students with various exceptionalities. Some were on the milder end of the autism spectrum, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, but would now fall within ASD. Extra professional development would not have helped me serve severely affected students while instructing a class.
My work as an EA and then as a teacher helped me appreciate the possibilities and limitations of integrating students with special needs in school settings so I don’t see how this plan can support those with the severest needs.
Catherine Little is a Toronto-based educator, consultant and writer.