LETTER: Support for autistic children lacking, writes Harbour Grace mother

Published on May 13, 2014
letter to the editor

I wanted to share my story with anyone else with a child who has autism and is considering a move to Newfoundland, like we did from Ottawa.

In 2009, my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We spent the last months of his life planning what I would do after he died.

Our oldest child, Emily, was 10 at the time and our youngest, Grace, was six. We knew the children and I would need family support so we decided it would be best to move back home to Newfoundland.

I knew we wouldn't have access to the same services in a small town that we had in our nation's capital, but I never thought I would have to sacrifice Emily's education. After all, I was moving from a "have-not" province to a "have" province, right?

Emily has autism, and like most kids with autism, she has her challenges. Emily also has talents, like being able to read at a Grade 2 level when she was only four years old. Her reading comprehension is still her greatest strength.

In Ottawa, whenever I had a meeting at Emily's school it was always with a team: her classroom teacher, the educational assistant, the resource teacher and the principal. Often there would also be someone from the school board to help with things like behaviour programs or computer support.

In the four years I have been in Newfoundland, most of the meetings have been with her teacher. I have requested in the past that the student assistants, who spend a lot of time with Emily, be at the meetings. I was told no and that meeting with parents is not in their contract.

When we were in Ontario, all of Emily's report cards would contain a list of instructional accommodations. These accommodations are made for every child with special needs. Some of Emily's accommodations were things like access to a word processor for written assignments, templates or software to organize written work and the use of adaptive technology.

I have yet to receive a report card or course progress report that lists any accommodations from the Eastern School Board.

In Emily's former school, a number of assessment methods were used, like one-on-one assessment, the use of multiple choice and teacher/educational assistant observation.

On Emily's last report card, the comments from both her religious education teacher and art teacher read: "unable to evaluate due to lack of assessment items."

I have called the school board in hopes of getting programs for Emily. I was told to call our autism itinerant, but his voice box was full. I tried numerous times for two days to reach the autism itinerant and the voice box was always full. I called the school board again and explained my situation. I was told they would let him know his voice box was full.

The next day I was still unable to leave a message so I called our ministry of education, who told me to call our school board. I still have not been able to make contact with our autism itinerant.

I have called all three of our political parties and so far the only person I could get on the phone was Liberal MHA and education critic Dale Kirby.

I know the system is far from perfect anywhere in Canada. It is waiting list after waiting list and programs that do not have the funds to accommodate all children that need them. But at least there is a list to wait on.

It doesn't matter how good your local school or teacher is, they cannot teach your child without the tools to do so.

Emily was given a computer tablet for school this year. However, neither she or her teacher received any training.

I would rather pay for the iPad myself if the school board would provide us with the knowledge of what programs could be put on the iPad to help Emily with her education.

I took my two daughters back to Ontario for my sister's wedding in the summer of 2012, and I cannot tell you how many times Emily asked if she could go home to Newfoundland. I lost count after 50. Emily has a freedom in Newfoundland she could never have in Ontario.

I knew my family would support the girls because that's what my family does. But it surprised me how much support she received from the community.

Most people in my community not only go out of their way to say hello to Emily, but try to make her feel part of the community. I wish I could say the same for the Eastern School Board.

Last month was National Autism Awareness Day and Emily's school sold blue ice cream and blue cotton candy. It was a nice gesture, but what Emily and all children with autism, who live in Newfoundland, really need is the same services and resources available to other autistic children in the rest of Canada.

— Lisa Steele writes from Harbour Grace