The Ministry of Education is reporting an increase in the number of children with autism who have been referred to the Student Support Services Unit for school placement.
Chief Education Officer Karen Best told those attending a public lecture on autism awareness on Monday at the University of the West Indies School of Graduate Studies and Research, that in the past three years, the ministry received referrals for 80 children with autism or autism-like characteristics. According to her, this represents just over 21 per cent of the total number of referrals for special education.
“This number also represents an almost 300 per cent increase over the number of children with autism referred for school placements, compared to 15 years ago. What these statistics do not capture are those students who are accessing private school and institutions, who don’t come through the ministry. We should therefore expect that the number will be higher during the period identified,” Best said.
She added that the Ministry of Education has responded to this spike by increasing access to specially designed programmes for students along the autism spectrum.
“In 2010, the Irving Wilson School, which prior to that date catered to students who are hearing impaired and visually impaired, began to cater to students on the autism spectrum, and every year since then we have added an additional class.
“One of the peculiarities of students with autism is that they function best in a structured environment. And at the Irving Wilson School, the teachers have a heavy reliance on TEACH – treatment and education of autistic and communication-related handicapped children – providing visual contact to assist children with processing verbal information,” Best said.
She noted that while autistic children possess a wide range of intellectual talents and must be educated in the least restrictive environments, there are some who will be diagnosed as “low-functioning” and will need to be placed in a special school.
The senior education official added that there are autistic students throughout the entire school system and all schools must therefore have the resources to teach them, regardless of where they may be on the autism spectrum.
Best told the audience that the Ministry of Education has also been facilitating the training of teachers, particularly those in special needs schools, as well as primary special education units, in the teaching and learning methodologies for autistic students. One such example is an online programme being offered in partnership with Cleveland State University in the United States.
“In addition, one teacher from every nursery, primary and secondary school on the island has been invited to participate in the online Autism Disorder Spectrum training course for school personnel, facilitated by the New Brunswick Ministry of Education, out of New Brunswick, Canada. This invitation was also extended to our colleagues at Erdiston College. And I can report to you that 97 persons are currently taking part in strengthening their skills through this online training,” she said.
Officers in the Student Services Support Unit in the Ministry of Education are also participating in that course.
Monday’s lecture was delivered by Professor at Century College, Minnesota, USA, Dr Delia Samuel, who is a mother of two autistic boys.