Kids with autism shouldn’t spend school days in survival mode
Autism Nova Scotia executive director Cynthia Carroll: “We emphatically believe that our school system should support the use of specialized learning environments for those particularly affected by sensory issues ...” (PETER PARSONS/FILE)
Following the Oct. 30 report of recommendations from the Minister’s Panel on Education, there has been a lot of discussion around inclusion in our public school system in Nova Scotia.
These discussions have unfortunately resulted in a heated and misguided dialogue of inclusion vs. segregation, which is not only an inaccurate portrayal of the recommendations provided to the minister, but a disservice to those children who are struggling under the current inclusion model.
At Autism Nova Scotia, we represent Nova Scotians with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and as such, we need to look at how our public school system can best serve children with ASD.
As things stand today, there’s room for improvement.
We want to be clear; we believe in an inclusive education system for all children in Nova Scotia. We are adamant that we do not go backwards to segregated education. While some of our children are well served by the current model of inclusion, we cannot be afraid to open up discussions on whether the current system is effectively serving all students with autism, because in many cases, we know it is not.
Autism is an invisible disability, and at times this makes it harder for people to acknowledge the extra supports these children need. Children with autism often have sensory challenges that include an aversion to bright lights and loud sounds. They have incredible difficulty in managing transitions from one activity to another, not to mention the challenges they face with social communication.
What we’re hearing from some of the families we represent, whose children are particularly affected by sensory issues, is that their children spend their days overstressed, focusing all their energy on managing the noises, the bright lights, the transitions from one activity to the next.
Instead of learning, they’re spending their days desperately trying to cope.
This is deeply concerning to the parents of these children, some of whom make the choice to remove their children from the classroom and provide alternative education, such as homeschooling. For some, this is a decision that works best for their family unit.
Let’s be clear, though: for other families, making the difficult choice to remove children from public school, because their sensory issues are not being accommodated in the current model of inclusion, means denying those children access to public education and the many opportunities for learning and social development that should be available to them in a fully inclusive public education system.
I’ve used this analogy before, and I think it’s very important here when we talk about the meaning of inclusion. If a child is attending school in a wheelchair, we don’t force him or her to take the stairs because that’s what all the other “typical” kids must do. We accommodate that child’s needs. This is what we are fighting for with our children — that their individual needs be accommodated so that they can be provided with the same access to education as all other children in the province.
We also need to recognize and acknowledge how public education, as the foundation upon which all future learning is built, affects the lifespan of those with autism in Nova Scotia.
This is why we emphatically believe that our school system should support the use of specialized learning environments for those particularly affected by sensory issues and others for whom the modified, inclusive classroom environment is not supportive of their learning. This will allow all children to be fully included in our schools, providing them the support they need to reach their potential and ultimately to be more fully included in their communities as adults.
It’s about investing early — to achieve long-term gains.
Karen Casey, minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, responded to the recommendations of her panel last week, and we applaud her for leaving the door open to examine our current model of inclusivity.
We’ll go even further and say that we want to walk through that door and support her in improving upon the existing model of inclusion to ensure that every child in Nova Scotia receives the best possible chance for success, and that no parent is ever left without a public education option and forced to make the decision to remove a child from a public education system that is mandated to be inclusive for all children.
Cynthia Carroll is executive director, Autism Nova Scotia