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(Canada) York, Ont: Autism school closes as 43,000 kids wait for services

May 17, 2021, Markham (Ont.) Economist and Sun: Deadline looms as York Region board to end 25-year-old autism-specialized Markham school York Region District School Board is doubling down on its decision to shutter Giant Steps, a 25-year-old elementary school in Markham that specialized in teaching students with autism. And as its July 1 closure looms, Giant Steps’ president Martin Buckingham criticized YRDSB’s decision to close the school. “It’s just a personal decision on behalf of the director, and the rationale for it is pretty weak,” said Buckingham. The board's director of education, Louise Sirisko, had cited equity as one of the factors behind the closure. “If you tell anybody, any person in the disability community in Canada that it’s OK to decrease service levels because you can’t do it for everybody, that’s a ridiculous argument,” Buckingham said. “It’s like going to a construction site and saying, ‘Oh, there’s 12 workers; we only have six hard hats, so let’s just give nobody a hard hat.’” In Ontario, the ministries of education and of children, community and social services deal with autism, with the latter being the most popular in the news when it comes to the Ontario Autism Program (OAP). But Buckingham criticized the partnership. “The problem is those two ministries are silos; they don’t work together,” Buckingham said, noting one ministry focuses on education while the other focuses on therapy needs. This is where Giant Steps comes in: “It brings those two things together. So you have education and therapy,” Buckingham added. The school is also more financially accessible than private education, he said. “Our uniqueness is that we’re accessible to people that can’t afford $50,000 or $70,000 (for private education) a year. The parents’ fees are $7,000 a year to go to Giant Steps, but they can pay that out of that OAP budget … the money that they get from MCSS (Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services).” However, YRDSB continues to defend its decision. “This process is operational and is being co-ordinated in accordance with the Education Act, which sets out this responsibility to staff,” YRDSB spokesperson Licinio Miguelo said. When asked why YRDSB was closing a school to which its staff referred students with autism, Miguelo added, “Since notification of the board’s withdrawal from the program, board staff have stopped referring students to this program.” “The board provided an 18-month notice period to the organization leading up to July 1, 2021.” Miguelo further wrote that “there have been many changes in programming since 1995.” With YRDSB already having special education programs, coupled with “enhanced services” coming from the MCCS — especially via its Children Treatment Network — “YRDSB feels it is no longer necessary to have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with an outside provider as part of its service delivery model,” he added. In March, MCCS launched an autism program with an initial enrolment of 600 children, who can receive applied behaviour analysis, speech language pathology and occupational therapy. But there are still some hiccups, Buckingham said, citing the 43,000 kids on the program’s waiting list…. In Giant Steps, these therapists are on staff, Buckingham said. “Their caseload is 24 kids to one therapist, the caseload for a therapist on the school board is usually around 200.”


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