In an emotional revelation of the struggles of raising a son with autism, Minister in the Ministry of Finance Ryan Straughn has delivered an appeal for support for parents of children with disabilities from the floor of Parliament.
“My son, who… hasn’t spoken for the past nine years, Sir, as you are well aware, [is] autistic,” he declared, while the House of Assembly was approving a $175,000 supplement for the Ann Hill School for adolescent children with learning disabilities on Tuesday.
“The difficulties that parents certainly of persons with special needs face in this country are significant.”
Straughn spoke of having to reject public schooling for their son and having to spend “quite a bit of money”, among other challenges he and his wife face in caring for the boy.
“It is not easy, Sir. Because I can say to you this morning I took my son to speech therapy before I came to Parliament, and it is a very intense and a painful thing because not to be able to have a conversation with your child is a very heart-wrenching and a very emotional experience.”
The Cabinet Minister appealed for “anything that a Government can do to help to facilitate young children in helping to find themselves in a world that is very complicated”.
He recounted an early dilemma of finding a suitable school for his son, then four years old, and having to resort to private school as the facility that was offered to them within the public system left a lot to be desired.
“At four years old, Sir, on visiting the institution that was on offer with respect to the public… the state of the plant that faced us at that point in time in good conscience I really could not allow my son to be in that space.
“And therefore as a member of the Government, I would support any effort certainly to enhance the surroundings for persons with disabilities and I want to make sure that the public is well aware that this Government certainly will be taking these matters quite seriously.”
In addition to private tuition, the Straughns have also had to meet additional expenses to ensure the continued development of their child, he said.
“Over the course of the last eight-and-half years Sir, we’ve had to spend quite a bit of money on speech therapy; quite a bit of money sir with respect to occupational therapy.
“Quite a bit of money with respect to behavioural therapy.
“Quite a bit of money with respect to vision therapy.
“And the reality is that persons with special needs and certainly those on the autistic spectrum face many challenges that normal parents do not face in this country.”
The Minister in the Ministry of Finance said his call for Government intervention was prompted by the acknowledgement that while he and his wife have been able to provide for their child, other parents may not have the means to do so.
He claimed that over the past decade there has been a significant increase in the number of people with disabilities, including those presenting on the autism spectrum. He said he believed there is still a lot of work to be done to enable parents of disabled children to help them live their best life.
Straughn said: “A lot of us take these things for granted and the reality is that we need to be able to support our children in all their capacities.”
He suggested that any reform in the education system must include a provision for children with special needs. On Tuesday, education Minister Santia Bradshaw announced a blue-ribbon panel was developing a white paper on special education within “a couple of months.”
He said: “As a Government we will seek to provide an environment for that to be able to be done, but it means that as a society we must be conscious that those who are most vulnerable.
“There must be a special place with respect to how they are treated and to the extent that the resources allow for Government to be able to do so.”
He also admitted to constantly worrying about being able to provide for his child.
He declared: “One of the fears that I have, my wife has, and I know that all parents of persons with special needs have would be what happens to your child in the event that something happens to you.
“It’s something that I would not want to contemplate but it’s the reality of life.”