Ontario Autism Program Changes: Connections for Students

IBI last day

My son on his last day of IBI Therapy, June 2016

Our Experience with the “Connections for Students” Program

At the end of 2015, the supervisor at my son’s IBI Autism Therapy indicated he had nearly completed the 5 levels of school readiness goals* they were working on with him. He was attending IBI therapy for 3 full days a week, and enjoying Senior Kindergarten 2 days a week.  He was doing well at school and had been going to a similar ECE program of one kind or another since he was 18 months old due to his communication and social delays being identified early. He seemed ready to be at school more and at therapy less.

In January of 2016, we began the “Connections for Students” program, a 12 month-long transition from IBI therapy into full-time school.

Every month our transition team met at the school. The team was made up of my son’s IBI Supervisor, myself, the school Principal, the Autism Specialist from the School Board, the Spec. Ed. Teacher, the ECE in SK and later the EAs from Grade 1 as well as the school board SLP. The classroom teacher was able to ask questions and get more support and learn about strategies that work for my son. The IBI Supervisor would help them adapt systems my son was familiar with from therapy (such as working through a folder of worksheets or other independent activities) and use PECS and visual schedules to help him through school day transitions and classroom expectations. They worked to build social and communication goals into his IEP. They identified specialized equipment needs.

Not only were we transitioning from IBI to school, but we also decided to transfer school boards for the start of Grade 1. In our case, we were transferring from our local public school to the local Catholic school.

The Connections program brought together the public and Catholic board Autism Specialists. The Spec. Ed. Teacher from the Catholic school was able to come observe my son in his Kindergarten class and speak with the teacher and ECE.

Our Kindergarten teacher at the public school was caring, but despite teaching for over 20 years, was definitely new to the world of autism. The Connections program brought her much-needed support. At the public school, I found that the Connections team was so important for helping the teacher and ECE with a full and busy Kindergarten classroom feel less overwhelmed and better able to cope with meeting my son’s needs. I had the impression they felt very stretched thin and were just trying to get through the day.  Every bit of support was needed.

As we started Grade 1 at the Catholic school, I noticed a shift. The Connections team was working entirely for my child. At every meeting, the teacher would bring her questions which were always started with ‘how can I best support him with ___?’ and the team would give suggestions and provide resources. Between meetings the teacher would try out the suggestions and come back to the next meeting to share what was working and what needed tweaking. They would share successes and build on them.

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Relaxing in the Sensory Room at School

Grade 1 was a fantastic experience for my son and I. My son is now in Grade 3 where he continues to thrive. His school is excellent at identifying his needs and picking out goals to continue to help him with his social and communication delays.

I found that the Connections process was vital and extremely supportive. I never had to fight for an IEP or beg for EA support. The Connections program seemed to make both schools take his needs VERY seriously. Currently, it feels like we are on auto-pilot, naturally flowing from year to year with minor tweaks and adjustments to the IEP as needed. I absolutely believe that IBI Therapy and a transition to school via Connections gave my son the foundation he needed for school success.

At our IBI discharge meeting in early 2016, I was dismayed to learn that my son had only completed the first 3 levels of the IBI school readiness goals. At the time, all children were being pushed out of IBI due to the then Liberal Provincial Government’s age cut off set at 5. As we were already transitioning to school and had the support of Connections in place, I didn’t fight the discharge (but I did fight the government on behalf of Ontario’s children).

In the end, because of Connections, my son has continued to achieve the goals of levels 4 & 5 (we built them into his IEP). Instead of completing these goals at IBI therapy, he completed them in a more natural learning environment alongside his neurotypical peers at school. He is reading at Grade level, excelling at math. He has friends he looks forward to playing with at recess. He hops on the bus happily each morning, is surrounded by love and support at his school, and happily comes home each day to put on his Mario onesie and play Super Mario games.

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My silly Mario!

Changes to the Ontario Autism Plan

Currently, in Ontario, families with children receiving government-funded IBI therapy have been told that their funding is ending abruptly as of April 1st. Some will lose their therapy as soon as the end of March, others have been able to extend their existing contracts by another month or two.  These children will be leaving therapy centers and heading to school full-time without the benefit of a carefully planned and supported transition.

As schools have already allocated EA supports for the school year (and there is a hiring freeze), children will be coming to schools that are simply not ready to provide them the support they need for success. Children coming to school without the necessary therapy or school resources face potential trauma and exclusion from school.

My son counts as a child on the Ontario Autism Plan’s waitlist. When the previous government reversed their terrible decision to cut off therapy to children over 5, my son’s name went back on the list.  He had neared the top of the list last August for an evaluation to see what level of support he needed (if any). Thanks to a secret freeze, his name was never called before the new Ontario Autism Plan was announced.

Under the new plan, some time in the next 19 months, his name will come up and we will receive funding based on his age and our low-income level.  Meanwhile, children who’ve never received intensive levels of therapy won’t receive enough funding to cover the actual costs of the therapy they need. The school readiness skills my son learned will be inaccessible as the cost of intensive therapy will be affordable only to the extremely wealthy. The new plan is not based on the actual needs of the child at all, instead it uses age and income to determine how much (if any) financial support the Ontario government will provide.

In a worrying move, the Connections for Students program information has been removed from the Ministry of Education website. From Autism Ontario’s website, you can still read about the Connections for Students program here:

Advocating for Children with PC MPP Amy Fee and PC MP Erin O’Toole

It is my sincerest hope that the government pause and reconsider its new Ontario Autism Plan. Ontario must have a needs based system of funding that takes the child’s actual therapy needs into account.  As the April 1st deadline looms ever closer while the Minister of Community and Social Services vows to not back down, I must insist that at the very least, the children currently receiving therapy be given a proper and supportive transition into the school system.

-Jennifer Beckett

Jennifer is a mother of two, living in the Waterloo Region. When not protesting outside of PC MPP Amy Fee’s office, she works as a Developmental Support Worker for adults with disabilities.

*5 levels of ABLLS (Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills)