Ontario is providing $7.5 million to train teachers to support students with autism spectrum disorder better, the province announced this weekend.
The funding will go to an online training program for Ontario’s 72 publicly funded school boards, delivered by Sonderly, the training division of the Geneva Centre for Autism in Toronto.
The additional funding comes after $6 million last year and will go toward an enhanced online training program for teachers with a live follow-up session, Andrew Davis, Sonderly’s director, told HuffPost Canada.
Davis said there’s “no doubt” online learning — now extended until at least Jan. 25 for most Ontario students — is a challenge for students who have autism.
“Our students are used to certain cues, or certain directions, from their environment that they’re familiar with,” he said. “And when you suddenly change that, it can be difficult for those kids with autism to use the skills that they already have, because they’re now being asked to use them in a different way, under different conditions, and that certainly is a challenge.”
Some students with disabilities may be able to return to in-person learning earlier if their school board allows for the accommodation.
The announcement comes after Doug Ford’s government faced backlash for changing the funding requirements available through the Ontario Autism Program in 2019. Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith later announced the government would go back to a needs-based program and double its budget.
The first phase of the new program started in August, and Smith has said the new program will be available by April 2021.
“Children are waiting while key developmental windows slip away.”
In October 2020, advocacy group Ontario Autism Coalition said families have been left “in crisis” waiting for needs-based funding that was not yet in place.
While the new funding may help educators support children with autism, more adults and support from educational assistants are needed to ensure classrooms are inclusive, Monique Taylor, the Ontario NDP’s critic for Children and Youth Services said in a statement to HuffPost.
“Further, this funding for teachers is a far cry from the core services that families need and have been asking for,” Taylor said, adding it’s been a year since Smith announced the needs-based program.
“Children are waiting while key developmental windows slip away. When I speak with families, that’s the real issue affecting their kids.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said the ministry and its implementation working group are “continuing to make progress on the implementation of all aspects of the new needs-based Ontario Autism Program.”
That includes a call for applications last month for organizations and service providers interested in delivering programs or services, they said.
More than 32,000 children are receiving support through the program, the spokesperson said, adding the ministry will continue to provide updates as the new program rolls out.
Stephen Lecce, Ontario’s education minister, said in a statement the province recognizes the pandemic’s challenges for parents. This funding will “foster a culture of respect, inclusion and opportunity” in schools, he said.
Ontario is also providing more than $30 million in funding for school boards to hire experts in Applied Behavioural Analysis and offer more training to boards.
More than 24,700 students identified as being on the autism spectrum are enrolled in Ontario’s publicly funded school system, according to school board data from 2018-19.
“[Students with autism are] definitely there and they definitely have unique learning needs and support challenges and educators are not provided this information in Teachers College, and aren’t given the tools specific to supporting kids with autism in their general training,” Davis said. “So it’s really important that we can put this information into their hands.”
Earlier on HuffPost: Ontario lockdown may not lift in January, Ford says