Spare the strap for autistic kids

How can you teach children with ASD if you don't know how to talk to them or how they understand the world?


We take for granted that safety comes first in our schools, but if your child is autistic, that’s not the case.

Cassidy Lamourie-Parkinson is a 10-year-old with autism, and his story reveals a gaping hole in our education system.

The Grade 5 student was recently suspended from Finch Public School. In an effort to leave his classroom without permission, he tried to pry a teaching assistant’s fingers off the door frame.

While this is inappropriate behaviour from any child, Cassidy isn’t like neurotypical children, and the incident involved behaviour that would be deemed inappropriate from anyone working with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Matters got worse when Cassidy’s mother, Tracy Lamourie, asked principal Sally Gustin if suspension was the appropriate method of discipline for her son. Gustin replied, “In my day, they got the strap.”

A gobsmacked Lamourie called the school’s superintendent, Linda Curtis, and anyone else who would hear her out. She asked for an apology and a meeting.

Neither Gustin nor Curtis returned NOW’s requests for interviews, but in a series of email exchanges Lamourie provided to NOW, Gustin apologized for the comment.

She writes to Lamourie that “I used [the phrase] to illustrate that we have changed our methods of discipline. In the past there was corporal punishment and now we use progressive discipline.”

The situation led to a discussion with the board’s autism team that Lamourie says she has been advocating for since Cassidy started school in November. The school decided to withdraw the suspension, determine a safety plan and start monitoring Cassidy to see when and what is triggering his challenging behaviour.

People on the autism spectrum have difficulty dealing with sensory stimulation, movement and transitions, like deviating from a schedule or moving from one task to the next.

Maureen Bennie, director of Calgary’s Autism Awareness Centre, a former teacher and mother of two teenagers with autism, says educators don’t reflect enough on what’s triggering aroused behaviour in such kids.

“Nine times out of 10, the trigger goes back to something that person in charge of the child with autism did. It is not the impetus of the child,” she says.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Education Act does not require teachers or any staff who interact with autistic children to receive non-violent crisis intervention training to safely manage disruptive and assaultive behaviour.

Bennie points out that even with this training, “the workers or the children themselves often wind up with injuries.”

But any training would be better than none.

Policy/Program Memorandum (PPM) 140, instituted by the province in 2007, directs school boards to use applied behaviour analysis (ABA) and conditioning to build useful repertoires of behaviour and reduce problematic ones.

Ask parents of autistic children in the Toronto District School Board how often they’ve met with an ABA-trained therapist and they report that such meetings are scarce.

The year before the PPM was introduced in 2006, the ministry funded the Geneva Centre for Autism to provide summer training for educators on diverse ABA topics.

That was the same year the Ontario government limited intensive behavioural intervention treatment for autistic children under six. Many low-functioning autistic children don’t develop speech until five or later, if at all. (Cassidy started at five.) That change has left many children without the treatment necessary to help them adjust to a school environment.

Although autism training became available free to all public educators as of July 2013, according to Marg Spoelstra, executive director of Autism Ontario, none of that training is mandatory.

Spoelstra recognizes that schools have done well with reporting their successes with autistic students, but in general, she says, “We’re not seeing the kinds of gains we’d like to.”

That could be a result of teacher turnover, but “there needs to be standardized training in place, [and] that is currently not mandatory,” she says.

Because children on the spectrum present differently in terms of issues with speech or stimuli, a one-size-fits-all program doesn’t work.

As far as Cassidy’s concerned, his learning program has been adjusted, but his case hasn’t changed how children on the spectrum will be dealt with in the education system.

Cassidy’s a high-functioning, verbal child. Imagine schools that are dealing with low-functioning, non-verbal autistic children who are prone to self-harming. What happens when they start hitting themselves? Currently, the answer is nothing – they beat themselves.

As for the lack of properly trained professionals, Lamourie says, “If we don’t deal with it now, we’ll have to when they’re adolescents.”

Thinking of worst-case scenarios, she asks, “What about a situation with police? I can just see if they say, ‘Put your hands up’ and he doesn’t do it quickly enough.”

How are children on the spectrum learning to cope if their educators aren’t learning how to deal with them?

Lamourie sees Cassidy’s rescinded suspension as a blessing in disguise. She feels he won’t now slip through the cracks. But he’s just one child, and his story is a common one.3

cynthiam@nowtoronto.com | @cynthiajmcqueen

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