Monday, July 10, 2006

Canada's Social Commentary in Crime Fiction Hits... Autism

It’s funny, because yesterday I had my little rant (again) about wanting books set in Canada to read. Anyone who knows me knows I’d never be exclusive to Canadians, because then I wouldn’t be able to read God’s books, not to mention the various works of other deities I’ve mentioned here.

But I’ve always loved the idea of using fiction to make subtle and not-so-subtle social commentary. To me, there’s a big difference between getting in someone’s face and lecturing them about how things should be, and writing a story that includes glimpses at an issue, enough to get the person thinking, without being bashed over the head.

I’ve been reading this book and hit a conversation in it, where two characters talk about how funding for autistic kids gets pulled at age 6 in Ontario. Sounds heavy, right? Yet it’s barely three lines of dialogue, with a sarcastic remark about the funding cut off at age six, because they’re cured then, right?

The Supreme Court of Ontario has ruled against parents fighting the funding cut off for autistic children. Parent’s of autistic children are in shock.

And they aren’t the only ones.

This is the work I did before I turned to writing full time. Okay, I wasn’t working with autistic children in my last year on, but I was working in speech therapy, primarily. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I worked under the same funding program for the province of Alberta, and it doesn’t change the fact that I have experience working with autistic children.

And I’m frustrated by news of this ruling.

What the politicians, the judges, the airy-fairy types who stick their nose in the air and never actually get down on the carpet and interact with children and workers in these programs don’t seem to understand is that conventional educational approaches don’t work.

I know, for myself, I grew up going to school with pretty much the same 28-29 other classmates, give or take one or two departures and arrivals in the average year. And we didn’t have aids in the classroom, somehow our teacher always managed.

I’ve wondered about that. Why is it so hard now, having a class of 22 kids and an aid, and you still can’t keep up?

For one thing, when I was a student, the word was segregation not inclusion.

If you had special educational needs, you just got shifted sideways to a special class, where everyone had special needs. Ideas about learning by exposure to typical behaviour and encouraging tolerance and understanding didn’t seem to be the focus (that’s how I saw it as a kid).

In fact, because of my academic record, when I was in the higher grades I actually worked in the school as a tutor, and did essentially then what I was paid to do later – create a program for five-year-olds with learning challenges to help them understand basic concepts.

Today, a teacher gets fewer students, and a higher number of ESL kids and children with learning issues. I can honestly say that 28/29 kids in my class were Caucasian* most years – some years, 100% - and English was the first language in every home. Times have changed. I don’t see that as a bad thing, but I do see that this creates new challenges for teachers sometimes. (*I'm mentioning this because of ESL issues - we have a very high number of children coming from homes where they don't speak English now. I love the multi-culturalism, absolutely, but it is hard for teachers to address ESL students effectively and meet the educational needs of the whole class.)

Beyond that, teachers are expected to be counselors and to monitor children more and more. Ridiculous? Not. The last place I worked in BC before moving back to Alberta was a school in Burnaby. We did a home removal through social services, as well as monitored two children in my program for sex abuse and were involved in the legal proceedings as well. On top of that, I managed a dozen staff, over 60 kids, including a one-on-one aid for an autistic child, and I had to meet with parents and government agencies involved in the monitoring routinely. Reports to file, lists to check off…

These aren’t play jobs. I know Kevin used to jokingly make fun of me, off to play with the kids, packing my toys. And you know what? I had a lot of fun, sure.

But the educational future, in some cases the independent future, of children were what was at stake with my job. Language pathways are set by the age of 8 – some people believe the age of 6 (I’m not getting into a debate on brain development here). But it is a fact that if a child can’t read by grade 3, they will have a significantly more difficult time learning to read later.

Their entire educational future hinges on reading.

Not to mention that habits are hard to break. Anyone have a bad habit here? Chew your fingernails? I had a cousin who sucked her thumb until she was 9. You know what her parents did to make her stop? Covered her thumb in molasses. I guess she didn’t like molasses…

The point is, the longer you have entrenched habits, the harder it is to break them. I worked with a number of children with speech issues. The biggest problem was that they couldn’t hear that they weren’t saying a word properly. I’d say “Sandra” they’d say “Anduwa” and smile, so pleased with themselves. I had to teach them to hear the difference. And you know, you can’t just keep saying, “No, Sandra” because they can’t hear the distinction. You have to approach it differently, as part of a multi-phased program.

I know what I did when I worked with the children, I know what I did when I was a supervisor. I know how many times I’ve dealt with abuse reporting on top of my workload. I know how many times I’ve been overworked because we can’t find qualified people for all the children who need early intervention. That is, in the end, why I quit. Full time caseload my last year, for what I was doing, was two children. I had three. I lived in my Rodeo. I ate in my Rodeo. I had no time to work out in the morning, was absolutely dead by the time I dragged myself home sometimes 15 hours after I’d left in the morning (all depended on meeting schedules) and getting sick, constantly.

And the shocking thing is, I made such little money (I brought home about $1200 Cdn per month, 10 months a year) we decided that with the tax difference if I wasn’t working, it hardly made a difference to our income, given what Kevin earns.

Some days, I feel guilty about leaving. Parents still email or call occasionally. Two of the three children I worked with that last year seriously regressed after I left the program. Of course, there were other things factoring in. Parents get divorced, a stay-at-mom goes back to work, life in chaos. One of them was there before I left, and refusing to do their program. There were days my job was more about being a counselor than an educator.

That’s a reality any more. Kids don’t come to school all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at age 5 with nothing but the joy of childhood carrying them forward. I suppose if I thought hard back to kindergarten, maybe there were 5 kids from divorced families back then? Now, it’s drastically higher. I’ve watched kids go through that, the temper tantrums, the anger, the grief. They don’t have coping mechanisms in place yet.

You can’t just say, “Shut up and sit down Johnny, we’re working on colour concepts today.”

So, it’s all in my mind now, because I can see from the other side what this ruling means. I’ve never understood it. Same thing here – six years old and out the door. Oh, sure, they say they won’t do that. But they will. Three months from now it will be talk about funding cuts. Then they’ll “restructure” the program for older children, and gradually squeeze them out.

I’ve seen in happen before – it’ll happen again. Do we ever listen to the teachers? What some people would never stand for in their jobs – being physically threatened, bitten, punched, working in unsanitary conditions, short of supplies – teachers face regularly. I didn’t have a physical assault my last year on the job, but the year before I was put into a doctor’s office, and not the only one. One child took one of those big wooden blocks and struck his aid over the head with it, and that was the same child who put me in the doctor’s office.

I suppose the problem for me is, I could go on forever. Until you’ve worked in this field, can you really understand? Well, I think the parents of these children understand.

And I think the politicians and judges who make these decisions are out of touch.

The fact that this would even turn into a legal battle is appalling.

These parents want better for their children.

Some of them are so desperate, they’ll try anything.

What can you do?

Hon. Sandra Pupatello, Minister of Education

1483 Ouellette Ave, Windsor ON, N8X 1K1

I can’t believe at a time when Canada is talking about record budget surpluses that we’re even having these conversations about funding and program cuts to children who really need them. The beauty of email is, you don’t have to live in Ontario to express that sentiment. Tell the minister of education that they’re wrong, that Ontario’s children deserve better.

They deserve a chance.

I found this post at Tanginika’s and it was one of those posts that made me stop and think. Made me want to just go outside and sit, with my eyes closed, the sun shining down, a cool breeze blowing on my skin…

Until I remembered all the things I have to do today.

Sad, isn’t it? I’ll be in and out this am, so don’t mind me if I’m not as quick on the comments.

Oh, and if you’d rather read about heroes and anti heroes click here.

Maybe I should have said that right at the beginning?


S. W. Vaughn said...

As a parent who knows exactly what her rambunctious (but not violent) boy is capable of -- I worship the ground teachers walk on. I don't know how they do it. If I had Bill Gates' money, I'd use it to increase teachers' salaries across the board...

I'd like to see these lawmakers enter a classroom of 30 six-year-olds and come out alive. :-)

ivan said...

Having done some teaching, I can apprecite some of your concerns.
Your blog is so rich, actually, that I'll have to read it again.
You are putting out some good ones.

Actually, your blog on you as a Canadian book buyer was probably too successful: So many comments on it that I can't read them now for strikeovers and fuzziness...I guess someone was writin in just when you ere compsing the current blog.
Can you fix? Do you have time?

Flood said...

I never go near kindergarten without a chainmail outfit and a shield.

We recently adopted a three year old girl who was in the CAS system for her entire life. I felt they patholigized her in an effort to look like something productive was being done. Her speech therapy was going nowhere until she had other kids to mimic and emulate.

Anecdotal evidence, I know. I'm no expert in anything child-related (with the expection of the kids I have, of course). I do believe we need more funding, and I would like to see the money be used to find different tools for each child. Since there are degrees in any special needs, no child in distress is always going to learn the same way, like you said.

Thanks for the minister's info, Sandra!

Bill Cameron said...

Garrison Keillor said, "When you wage war on education, you are attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You are not a conservative; you are a vandal." I know what you're talking about, Sandra, is just a piece of the total education picture, but it's illustrative of a view that seems to be taking hold under the banner of conservatism. It's a shame. In my mind, there is nothing better to spend money on than the care and education of all our children, no matter their needs. Because when we cast them aside, we're killing the future.

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, in this day and age, I'd be scared to deal with 30 six-year-olds. We haven't even talked about the inability of teachers to deal with discipline issues. I'm not talking about the strap, but now removing a child, even physically intervening if there's a violent incident between children... teachers have to be afraid. I've had people say "why didn't you do something?" and you have to say that, unless the parent signs documents allowing consent to restrain a child from kicking/biting/punching the staff, we can face legal action if we physically touch them...

Teachers sometimes go to class feeling scared, and it's like blood in the water to a shark - the kids smell it. They know.

Flood, how wonderful of you to adopt a child, first off. Especially given the needs. You're right - children need to be able to learn by example, and from each other. Part of my job was to faciliate integration in classroom settings. It's a fine line to balance, but it's ultimately very important. The greatest compliment to you is when you can be so hands-on with other kids because your child is capable of being independent in the classroom and only looks for you to show off accomplishments instead of needing assistance. I'm not a parent but I've had total pride moments with my kids, seeing them do something that a few months before I wouldn't have thought I'd see them do so soon.

Bill, that's a fantastic quote. Love Garrison Keillor. Yes, when we deprive children, we deprive society as a whole. These ministers should remember that when they're old, it will be the children of today deciding what kind of care they get...

Ivan, I'm not sure what's happening with the comments for you. Sometimes, blogger wigs out. I checked here on my end, and it's all readable, but I'll check again before I g out this morning and see if it's still okay on my end. I don't know if I can fix comments or not... ??? It's never come up before!

But I'm glad you're enjoying the blog!

ivan said...

All comments lound and clear now.
Thanks. Might have been my machine.
I really empathize with teachers.

They have to reinforce a society's propaganda while somehow retaining their integrity. I think they succeed. Dangerous, demanding job.

Andrea at Lochthyme said...

That's awful Sandra! I feel the same way about the education funding in the is lacking. Teachers should be paid much more than they are. They are saints for putting up with what they do.

My youngest daughter is in the public school system since she was three...due to delayed speech. She will still be getting speech classes when she enters kindergarten this fall. Her teachers have been the best. My oldest daughter is entering 4th grade and I've loved all her teachers too. They do a very hard job with very little pay, very little support and not enough funding for school supplies.

Every year our town is unable to fund the school budget and it's cut every year along with alot of other budgets including police and fire. It seems like all the federal government cares about it funding tax breaks for their corporate buddies or passing new laws that only help their corporate buddies. They have spent billions on this war in Iraq (which I don't think they should even have started but that's another story)which could have been spent on education. They really don't seem to put education where it needs to be on their agenda.

The children we are raising and teaching are the future of our society and we need to be doing all we can to give them the best education we can. Not sending all our money to Iraq and into the pockets of corporations. I could go on and on about the state of education here but I won't. :)Suffice to say it's not good.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

That's too sad about the funding. It's really not much better here in the States. New York is one of the toughest academic states where even ESL kids are supposed to be abel to pass standardized tests.

Which IMHO blows a big one!

JamesO said...

The discipline point is a good one - I suspect that classes are staffed by a teacher and an assistant purely because having only one adult in a room full of children would inevitably lead to accusations of abuse. Children don't have the moral framework of adults, but that's not to say they can't manipulate situations to their advantage. They know that they only have to accuse a teacher of some vaguely inappropriate behaviour and suddenly they'll be the centre of attention.

Not all children are like this, of course, but it does seem that they are becoming smarter (not the same as more intelligent) younger.

Adequate (indeed, overgenerous) funding for schools should be a given in any society - no politician should be able to justify cuts in that budget. But in our busy world, all too often parents see school as being responsible for rearing their children. The truly autistic, the fetal alchohol syndrome and other 'educationally sub-normal' children need and should get all the care a decent society can give them, and hang the expense. But when schools fill up with uncontrollable little tyrants who have known no discipline in their lives before being offloaded onto the system by their parents, it is easy to see how those who control the purse-strings might want to squeeze a little. 'We're prepared to educated them, not raise them,' might be the refrain. Sadly it's the teachers, not the parents, who end up suffering.

In this country we have a government that has introduced new legislation concerning education every year for the past nine years - since it came into power. The previous government wasn't much better. Teachers spend more time on paperwork than on teaching nowadays, and I've lost count of the number of times children have to take exams, be assessed, meet targets. It's not surprising that we have a shortage of teachers, record numbers retiring early, burnt out or just deciding that it's easier to stack supermarket shelves or work in a bank.

A thorny problem, and yet another example of our increasingly complicated society failing to come to terms with itself. It makes me glad I don't have kids of my own.

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JamesO said...

Was it something I said?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ha! More of those pesky spammers. I don't care if they spam old threads that are archived, but recent stuff, I try to delete it.

You've raised some good points, in my opinion. I did feel in some cases like I was raising children, particularly the kindergarten class I worked with. It made me think a lot about having kids of my own, and the challenges. And it isn't easy for parents - no matter what you do anymore, it's never right. You're too busy, not busy enough, too strict, too lax...

There are days I'm glad I don't have kids, too.

Cornelia Read said...

They cut off the funding for autistic kids at SIX?????? Can we go burn down Ontario in protest?

Right after I throw up and punch a few holes in the wall.


Ach, seething here......

Sandra Ruttan said...

I know C. Isn't it maddening? We've got to do what we can to change the attitudes of the government and, obviously, the courts in this country.

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