Online learning having ‘huge negative impact’ on children with autism

An Ajax mom says the education system is failing her son with special needs. While the province is allowing for some students to learn in the actual classroom, many are not being given the option. Maleeha Sheikh reports.

By Maleeha Sheikh and Meredith Bond

Online learning is having a huge negative impact on the physical and mental well-being of children on the autism spectrum, according to Autism Ontario and an Ajax mother is calling on the government to do more to accommodate a better learning environment for these children.

CityNews spoke with Amber Fancy, a mother of three, whose eldest son is on the autism spectrum. Kaysan is 12 years old and is currently in Grade 7 at Eagle Ridge Public School. He has been struggling deeply with online learning.

“He pretty much is not getting any kind of education right now. I know the teachers and the EAs. They’re really trying their best to give him any type of education through online learning,” said Fancy. “But virtual online learning is just not for kids with special needs.”

“He needs that one-on-one support and right now the system is failing him and children like him.”

Fancy says not only is he not learning anything new, Kaysan is regressing.

“Children with special needs or children with autism, they often take months to learn a specific skill,” she says. “He’s unlearning things he has learned because he not having the kind of support that he needs.”

Crystal Hunter, Manager of Communications and Resource Development for Autism Ontario, says the situation with Fancy’s son is one they have seen continuously during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Each school closure we face means countless lost opportunities for social, developmental and academic learning for students on the autism spectrum.”

These children are experiencing “worrisome losses to social functioning” that allow them to be able to thrive in society in “very inclusive and meaningful way,” Hunter added.

“A lot of [kids] benefit most by being in person, in class with their support teachers, with their EAS, with their peers, because those social learning opportunities are not happening right now. You can’t have that happen in front of a screen,” she explained.

While the Ministry of Education has allowed students with special needs to remain in in-person learning, they have left it up to the school boards to decide who is eligible to attend classes in school.

Hunter said the treatment of students on the autism spectrum ties back into “what the province is doing in order to help them more broadly in their education.”

Ontario has been working on a revamped program for support of children with autism for the last three years, but has seen multiple delays during the pandemic. During that time, the waitlist for those needing support has almost doubled.

Hunter said the fact that the different boards are the ones who are deciding who can go back is “inequitable.”

“Many parents have highlighted to us how the pandemic and the school shutdowns have exacerbated an already acute need to enhance safety, internal supports, being able to have school based supports, and letting community based supports within the school setting in like therapists,” added Hunter.

She also explained how the constant back-and-forth between in-person and online school has been extremely challenging to kids on the autism spectrum.

Fancy said they have been attempting to get their son back into school since the last lockdown in Spring of 2021.

They have contacted the superintendent of the Durham District School Board, her son’s principal and teachers, but continue to receive the same response that in-person learning should be reserved for those who cannot be accommodated with online learning.

She says her son fits this criteria.

“How are schools picking and choosing who gets to go and get access to an education and who does not get access to an education?” asked Fancy. “We’re fed up. There are so many parents in our position right now. So many people just don’t know where to go [or] who to talk to.”

Durham District School Board would not comment on Fancy’s specific request, but said schools have “carefully considered children’s needs and strengths on an individual basis, to determine how to best facilitate the transition to remote learning.”

They added, “The administration and staff of Eagle Ridge PS have been working closely with families of students with special needs and abilities, who have been provided with both technology and individualized materials at their homes to provide remote instruction tied to their Individual Education Plan (IEP) goals.”

Fancy is calling on the Ministry of Education to come up with clearer guidelines for which students meet the criteria to attend in-person learning.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Education said they have followed the advice of experts in the special education community to ensure “the most vulnerable kids who cannot participate in remote learning, can continue to benefit from routine and consistency in-class.”

The ministry said school boards are in the best position to make the decision on what students need to be accommodated. They added the ministry has provided boards with a guide on remote learning for students with special education needs.

Currently, Ontario schools are set to return on Jan. 17 after the start of school was delayed by two weeks due to spiking COVID-19 cases.

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