Winnipeg family grappling with lack of school-age support for son with autism

A Winnipeg mom says she is devastated by the new reality of applied behaiour analysis (ABA) supports for children with autism. Her son was promised 3 years of school-aged support, but now will receive just one year under the new provincially-funded model.

'It's the opposite of everything we were promised,' says Samantha Polonuk

Six-year-old Noah Polonuk started Grade 1 this year. (Samantha Polonuk)

This school year has only just begun, but the program changes for school-age children with autism have parents such as Samantha Polonuk already worried about next year.

"It's the opposite of everything we were promised, everything we were prepared for. So all of a sudden, I'm in panic mode: How is my child going to handle this?" said Polonuk, whose six year-old son, Noah, started Grade 1 this year.

Changes to the provincially-funded applied behaviour analysis (ABA) program were announced in January and aimed at diminishing the wait list for the pre-school ABA program offered through St. Amant. The redistribution of funds meant other services, such as those offered in the school-aged program, were cut by up to 75 per cent.

For Noah, it means the level of support he receives is significantly reduced.

"We worked very hard to get him to where he's at now. He's very smart with reading and writing down things, but next year he's going to need the extra help and it's not going to be there," said Polonuk.

Under the new rules of the program, Noah will receive one year of ABA support with five hours of tutoring. He currently shares an educational assistant (EA) with other children in his classroom, and may be ineligible for an EA next fall.

When Noah was registered with the ABA program three years ago, Polonuk says he was promised three years of the pre-school program and three more years of ABA support once he started school.

Support for the school-age program included 10 hours of one-on-one tutoring, instead of the five available now. Enrolment in the program also guaranteed a full-time EA in the classroom for three years.

Advocates meeting with government

Polonuk is working with other families through Manitobans For Effective Autism Treatment (MFEAT) to put pressure on the provincial government for more funding.

MFEAT members met with Minister Scott Fielding on Sept. 22 to discuss their concerns for children in the ABA program.

"We have asked for an amount of money in order to clear the wait list and reinstate some of the school-aged program...we still have almost 75 children waiting for the pre-school program, and we're hoping they will follow through with the commitments they made during the election process," said Guy Mercier, president of MFEAT.

MFEAT was asked by Minister Fielding to come up with a three-year funding proposal.

"The meeting with MFEAT was positive and constructive, and I look forward to receiving a costed proposal. Parents with children who have ASD face unique challenges and we want to make sure they have the support they need, and that children are receiving early intervention services at a younger age," said Families Minister Scott Fielding.

Fielding also noted the government is working with a large provincial deficit.

Long term concerns

Mercier's own son benefited from five years of school-age support through the ABA program at St. Amant. He is concerned for parents who will only receive a single year of the in-home tutoring.

"With my son I found that if we pre-taught some stuff and did homework together then he was far better off in the classroom because he knew the topics that were coming. He was far better, behaviour-wise, because he had a better idea of what was going on and could contribute in the class," said Mercier.

Noah (right) and his little brother Wyatt. (Samantha Polonuk)

For Noah, the one-on-one tutoring has made a difference and he is ready for grade one, especially when it comes to his math skills. Polonuk worries about Grade 2 when the curriculum is more demanding and more abstract thinking is required.

"Sadly, next year we're going to be on our own, trying to get him to understand, hoping he gets at least a part-time EA next year, and hoping the schools are there to help," said Polonuk.