In recent years, the number of kids with autism attending school here in Edmonton has risen drastically. Since 2004, the number of autistic kids has gone up over six and a half times and while the district has also grown by 23 per cent, this increase was unexpected. As a result the challenges that schools here in Edmonton are being faced with when addressing the needs of autistic kids has been brought to light. Moreover, this increase has demonstrated how when schools fail to meet these children’s needs they and their families are negatively affected.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), affects one in 68 children and though everyone with autism has their own strengths and differences they typically have challenges with social skills, communication — both verbal and nonverbal — and with repetitive behaviour. This means children with autism have a different set of needs than neurotypicals (people who are not on the autism spectrum) in school. When these needs are met, children with autism excel and are able reach their full potential in a comfortable manner. Doing so however requires staff to have specific training and schools to have different infrastructure and initiatives in place. The problem typically with providing kids on the spectrum with what they need is that they are on a spectrum; meaning that their educations require specialized approaches, and schools struggle with providing this or simply choose not to.
Both Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic Schools have programs in place to help autistic kids here in Edmonton; Edmonton Public schools have the Interactions program and Edmonton Catholic Schools have the Genesis Inclusive Support Transition (GIST) program.
The problem is that despite school plans, many parents and their children feel they don’t have proper support. As Amanda Drier — whose daughter Shyann is autistic — puts it this can lead to autistic kids being “looked at like they’re bad kids. But they’re not bad kids.” When speaking with the Edmonton Journal last week, Drier raised concerns about her daughters experience at her elementary school which has been met with a variety of different challenges such as aids who have not been properly trained, restricted access to sensory rooms, and a general lack of knowledge by the school on how to provide aid for her daughter. Drier is not the only parent who shares these concerns, Margaret Henderson had a similar experience with her son Robbie as he transitioned to junior high and was provided little to no support. It has been the experience of Drier, Henderson, and other parents throughout Edmonton that as parents they must become full-time advocates for their children and “fight” against schools who may not be listening to their concerns. This is taxing on parents, children, and schools alike and it should not be necessary for parents to do this so their children get the education and attention they deserve.
Overall autistic kids and their families face challenges here in Edmonton. The only way to address this problem is for schools to offer the proper programming. Of course no one is suggesting that teachers and their schools care less about their autistic students, but what needs to be recognized and addressed quickly here in Edmonton is that schools have shortcomings and that these shortcomings can be addressed — in part — by reeducating staff, and getting the proper infrastructure that their autistic students need to achieve their goals.