DR RADICA MAHASE
As many parents are preparing for the start of the new academic year, we at Support Autism T&T continue to receive numerous calls from parents whose children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, who are struggling to get their children into schools. This week I am featuring the story of one little boy, as told by his father. As they continue to navigate schools, with the hope that one day his son will be accepted into a public school, he has opted to remain anonymous.
“My son is now eight years old. He was diagnosed at age three and since then we have been trying our best to give him everything that he needs. I come from a very large family, and we live in a rural area in south, so everybody knows us. The first time I tried to get my son into school, it was a small pre-school near to our home. The teacher took him because she knew the family and she really wanted to help us out. The idea was that he would stay with her until we found a school that could really work with him. She was qualified to teach pre-school, but she didn’t have any special education training, so she was really just trying to accommodate my son.
"That teacher gave me hope. The fact that she was willing to take him – he wasn’t talking, he wasn’t potty trained, and she still took him in her school. I will always be grateful to her, that she will willing to teach my son because to be honest, she was the only one who tried to help. It showed me that there are still good people in this world – this young girl, brave enough to take a special needs child and try to work with him as much as she could.
"When he almost five years we tried to get him into the government ECCE school, also within our school district. This is when the rejections started! The principal said that they didn’t have any teacher trained in special needs and they couldn’t take him and not be able to work with him. I tried to understand where they were coming from. I told myself that it’s better for them to let me know up front, rather than I send him to school there and then have to take him out. We tried another ECCE school, a little further away and they said they were full and even if they had a space, they would not take him because they didn’t have any extra teachers to work with him.
"We made the decision to keep him in the preschool for another year and he was doing really good. We hired an aide to stay with him in the preschool, to help out three hours a day and we he was progressing really well, he was on par with other children his age. When he was approaching his sixth birthday, his teacher told us to enrol him in primary school, that he was ready.
"We decided that we will let the schools know about his autism so when we applied, we submitted his diagnosis, etc. The first primary school we tried is located ten minutes from our home. All my brothers and sisters, nieces, the whole family went to school there, it’s a government school. We went in and spoke to the principal, took my son’s diagnosis and pre-school report. The principal said he had to be honest with us, that none of his teachers have any qualifications or training in special needs education and that if he takes my son, they will not be able to teach him. He suggested that we try at two denominational schools in the area. We did the same at both – make appointments to see the principal, went in with the diagnosis and reports.
"At one school, the principal said she had to ask the first-year teachers if any of them will consider having my son in their class. The teachers said no, they won’t be able to handle the rest of the children and give him the attention he needed. The next school said they will take him if he gets a teacher’s aide. When we enquired at Student Support Services, they said the child has to be enrolled in a school before we can apply for an aide. So, we couldn’t get him into the school without an aide and we couldn’t get an aide unless he was in a school. We said okay we will sacrifice and pay for an aide ourselves but we were told that the ministry doesn’t have anything in place to deal with outside persons working in schools.
"We were stuck. With no other options, we started looking at private schools for special needs children, located at least an hour and a half drive away from home. It also meant finding money to pay for a private school – the fees were $7000 a term and money to pay for transport. When we sat down and did our budget, we realised that we had to cut out speech therapy so we could afford to send our son to school. That made me depressed because here I was playing games with my child’s life – he needs the speech therapy, and he needed the school,l and I couldn’t afford both and had to decide on one.
"I was angry that I was put in a position where I had to make that choice. If he was accepted into one of the public primary schools, then I wouldn’t have to pay all these high fees. I am a citizen, working for more than 20 years, paying all my taxes every month, and three public schools refused to take my child? I am begging the government to stop putting parents in these situations. Stop playing games with our children’s education. Why is it so difficult to educate my son?”
Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T