Why Autism Funding Matters

There has been a great deal of controversy regarding the province’s support for children on the autism spectrum. Many parents of these kids are upset, and the minister responsible, Lisa Thompson, is on the defensive

We’re not here to debate the issue of funding, or to argue whether it is an increase or a cut. The real question that every parent should be asking is this: how does this affect me? The answer is very simple:

Autism funding affects you a lot.


This isn’t just about students on the autism spectrum

It might be easy to dismiss the concerns of parents of autistic kids. After all, they represent only a tiny number of young people — around 1.5% of kids. However, the key thing to remember is that students with autism are not a separate, remote group of kids. Instead, they are a part of a much bigger community of kids: students with special needs. This includes things like ADHD, dyslexia, PTSD, all sorts of things — the list is long. There are a lot of Ontario kids with special needs.

How many? Almost 1 in 5 Ontario students makes use of special needs programs. These programs include assigned helpers, Individual Education Plans (IEPs), extra time for exams, you name it. In many ways, kids on the autism spectrum require more help than most — treatment requires intensive attention for long periods of time. However they are absolutely just one small part of a much bigger picture.

Changes to any special needs programming can have a dramatic impact on many thousands of students, far beyond one small subgroup. Changes can affect safety in the classroom, as well as academic achievement for all students. It also affects teacher performance and safety.


Safety Is Vital

Students who require special needs programming but can’t access it are at greater risk of disruptive behaviour. They also tend to demand a greater share of the teacher’s time, which means classroom management can suffer. What’s more, they are more likely to be targets of bullying and random acts of violence.

Changes to special needs programming, particularly introducing cuts in funding, can ramp up the pressure in classrooms, increasing instability at a time when young people, teachers and administrators (not to mention parents) are already stressed.

Combine this with the recent decision to lift caps on class size, and you’ve got thousands of dangerous situations in schools across the province.

Violence is already rife in the classroom, with 70 percent of elementary teachers in Ontario reporting experiencing or witnessing violence against staff members, and 79 percent reporting an increase in violent incidents. We need to be fighting to reduce those terrible numbers, not take steps that can make them worse.


Reject the “Sink or Swim” Approach

In a recent statement on increased class sizes, the Minister for Education made some startling comments:

Thompson said that businesses and post-secondary educators relayed to her during recent consultations that students are “lacking coping skills and they’re lacking resiliency. “By increasing class sizes in high school, we’re preparing them for the reality of post-secondary as well as the world of work.”

This is a startling perspective for someone in charge of one of North America’s biggest school systems. Study after study has demonstrated a clear link between class size and student performance. Bigger classes are more anonymous, unstable, and physically dangerous. This is not a random opinion, it is an established fact.

It suggests a very troubling perspective on education: a semi-Darwinian “survival of the fittest” viewpoint that suggests dangerous classrooms will “toughen up” our kids and help them succeed in life.

Never mind the countless studies that show links between class size and bullying, anxiety and academic performance — we cannot allow our schools to be turned into gladiator academies where only the strong survive.

Our job as parents and administrators is to create a safe environment for our kids, so they can gain knowledge, build connections with their peers, and find paths to excellence. If they need help in this journey, we should continue to provide that help. Period.

We do this not just because it’s the morally correct thing to do, but because it makes our society stronger, safer and more prosperous. It’s basic common sense.

Don’t dismiss the concerns of parents of kids with autism. The truth is, their concerns are yours — and ours. We need to stick together to make our schools safe and our children strong.

Autism funding matters.