From our report and recommendations to the Ontario government: Bringing community into schools

 We are blogging each section of our Report and Recommendations to the Ontario Government’s Autism Advisory Committee. Read the full report here: Ontario Recommendations- Inclusion is the New Gold Standard

Education advocates have (for decades) pointed out that schools are healthier when communities and families are involved. This is as true for autistic students as it is for all students.

Yet many parents of autistic children note they are discouraged from being involved or even sometimes being able to enter the physical space of their child’s classroom. Access is entirely dependent on the individual environment of a specific district since there are no provincial guidelines on parent access to school or inclusion of families in schools.

The quality of inclusion is linked to a district’s openness to a parent’s input and involvement. This points to an overarching truth: inclusion is an attitude, not a product. Some districts and unions have balked at the “costs” of inclusion. But in reality, inclusion comes mainly at the expense of a shift in district culture, towards acceptance and openness to diverse students and the broader community. It is also true that without buy-in from administrators, even the most expensive inclusion programs will not succeed.

Deanna Shoyer, a member of our parent auxiliary, noted a change in her children’s school experience, that will impact their entire lives, when she moved districts:

“From Grade 1 to Grade 5 my children were in the TDSB. They attended a regular school but were in an autism specific class and a developmental disability class. My understanding was that there would be inclusive programming but that never seemed to transpire. I agreed to Owen being in a DD class because I believed they would be more committed to helping him learn to use AAC. On the contrary, despite being supportive of his AAC in person and in writing (his IEP), they undermined its use by taking his talker away from him for most of the day and on the bus.

“From Grade 6 my children have been in HWDSB and I was very insistent that they be mainstreamed. Both boys are now in regular classes for their age and provided with support and accommodations. They are both visibly much happier and excited to go to school. Owen always has his talker with him and he is using it much more. They are extremely popular kids, both amongst the staff and their peers. Oliver is actively mentoring children in lower grades with respect to both play and helping them with reading.

“Both boys are improving their academic, art and sport skills and strengths at a much faster rate. They are not only happier but more confident in themselves and more comfortable with their peers. I should note that both their classes are mainstream but also include other disabled children.”

Wherever the government can, it should use tracking data to hold schools to high standards for inclusion. At the same time, the government can encourage school/community connections in several ways, outlined below.

Community Involvement in Schools

  • Inclusion is an attitude, not an out-of-the-box program. While mandates are essential, so is education to meaningfully change the environment.
    • Have all students in the classroom provide input into inclusion. They have wonderful ideas and this empowers them.
    • Allow families to get to know each other and be a part of inclusion. Community-based schooling leads to better success socially and academically.
    • Inclusion lifts the whole community: celebrate it!
  • Create a rule prohibiting schools from banning parents from classrooms.
  • Consult with SCERTS and other inclusion models to understand best practices for community involvement.
  • Offer incentives for community involvement in schools—never de-incentivize it.
  • Provincewide peer (autistic) mentor program with online options in remote areas.
  • Education about self-regulation and autistic ways of moving, to reduce stigma and improve classroom success.
  • Education about AAC so that school social workers, staff and other parents are comfortable communicating with students who use it.
  • Helpful supports for families who home educate.
    • Remove barriers to being involved in sports or other extra-curricular activities.
    • Online tools to modify and provide feedback on the Ontario curriculum.
    • Educate community centres on ways to include and welcome this growing population during school hours.
    • Autistic students who cannot currently attend school due to barriers should not face further barriers in being involved in community life.