DR RADICA MAHASE
It’s that time of the year when parents are rushing to purchase school books and materials for their children. It’s that time again when children are getting ready to start school; some with excitement and happiness, others with anxiety.
Many children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in TT do not get to have this experience. Instead of preparing for schools, many autism parents are stressed out and worried about their children because they cannot afford or access schools for their children.
Maureen, a mother from East Trinidad, who has a six-year-old son who was diagnosed with autism last year, said, “Earlier this year I applied to four primary schools within our school district and none accepted my child.
"One school is just five minutes away from our home and I met with the principal, who said that he doesn’t have any teachers trained in special needs education and they won’t be able to give my son the education that he needs.
"He was sympathetic and understanding and he spoke to the two teachers who will be teaching the first-year class, but both of them said they didn’t know anything about teaching children with special needs.
"We also had a meeting with the principal of another school which is also located within our district but she was not even open to accepting our son. She said that her school performs very well in SEA, with 90 per cent of the children going to prestige schools, and that the teachers push the students and my son will not be able to keep up or get good results.
"The other two schools said they didn’t have any space.”
Maureen’s experience is similar to that of many other parents of children with special needs. In fact, most parents will tell you that one of the biggest struggles in raising a child with autism in our country is educating their children. Many parents have resorted to home schooling because they just don’t have any other options.
Lisa, the mother of a 13-year-old boy diagnosed with autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), said, “For many years I tried to get my son into a school.
"When I was turned down by the government primary schools, I tried the private ones but eventually it became too expensive. We also had too many bad experiences. In one private special needs school, they would lock my son in a room if he had a meltdown and say that they couldn’t deal with him because he was aggressive.”
As much as we want to talk about inclusive education in TT, the reality is that inclusive education is a myth more than anything else.
First, there is the issue of actually getting a child into a school. The mere fact that children are being turned away by schools and that principals are saying their teachers cannot teach special needs children shows the extent to which our education system is definitely not for all.
The saddest thing about this is that every year more and more students graduate from UTT with a degree in special needs education who are not being hired by the Ministry of Education.
Only parents who can afford it are able to send their children to private schools. In cases where parents cannot afford to pay fees for private schools, the children end up staying at home with no access to any level of education.
Even when children with special needs are accepted into public schools, they are at a disadvantage because of outdated teaching methods that do not cater for different learning styles.
Also, a standardised curriculum and standardised testing mean the focus is always on the high performers, the ones who will pass for the "prestige" schools or get all CSEC passes, etc.
In most cases, parents cannot access teacher’s aides; they have to pay high fees for various types of assessments and they spend money on tutors and extra resources to help their children.
On top of that, parents are faced with negative attitudes of teachers and students.
One parent, Valerie, noted that, “My son is now going into form three and from the time he started secondary school he has been bullied. When classes were online, the other students used to write very nasty comments to him and the teachers did nothing.
"When we started back physical school, he was afraid to go, but we reassured him, and we went into the school and met with the principal and his form teacher.
"The bullying stopped for a month, then started back. A group of students told him that he should kill himself because nobody wants to be around 'a damaged person' like him.
"My son was traumatised and started having meltdowns, so we had to keep him at home.”
Social stigma being perpetuated within schools, by the teachers who believe that children with special needs/disabilities cannot learn. or students who see them as "weird" and "less of a person" just exacerbates the situation.
When Dr Eric Williams said the future of the nation is in the children’s schoolbags, he probably wasn’t referring to children on the autism spectrum or children with other special needs. Sixty years after independence. our nation has failed to provide equal access to an education for all children in TT.
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T