New Brunswick

Mother of autistic son gives inclusive education a failing grade

Heather Adams of Saint John says the theory of inclusive education sounds good, but it failed her son Brian, who graduated last year reading at a kindergarten level.

'This full, 100 per cent inclusion did not work for my son,' says Heather Adams of Saint John

Heather Adams says the New Brunswick education system failed her autistic son, who graduated from high school in 2015 with kindergarten-level reading and Grade 2 math skills. (Submitted by Heather Adams)

When you ask Brian Adams of Saint John about his time in school he describes it in one word: frustrating.

Adams, who graduated in 2015, is on the autism spectrum and has struggled with reading and math his entire life.

His mother, Heather Adams, said the theory of inclusive education sounds good, but it didn't work for her son, who graduated last year reading at a kindergarten level.

I don't think anybody should have to go to school and feel stupid, and that's how he felt.- Heather Adams

"In the classroom they would do the teaching and they would give Brian sheets of paper to colour," she said. "So Brian would be sitting there colouring while the children were learning — and the kids were teasing him saying, 'You don't know your ABCs,' and so he came home crying."

The New Brunswick Teachers' Association is calling for a review of the provincial inclusion policy. A spokesperson for the Education Department says it is "revisiting it to discuss the implementation to date."

Recent low test scores among students have prompted questions about what is behind the declining achievement.

Education Minister Brian Kenny said last month he has heard from many teachers who say classroom composition problems, including behaviour problems, are making it difficult for teachers to teach.

Heather Adams agreed with the criticism and said she felt as though her son had been forced into something that was never going to work.

"He would come home from school saying, 'I feel so stupid, I don't want to go.' And I don't think anybody should have to go to school and feel stupid, and that's how he felt."

Heather said inclusive education can work for some students, but "it failed Brian."

Segregated classes not allowed

The current policy of inclusive education in New Brunswick, which was updated in 2013, says the aim is to make all students "feel respected, confident and safe to participate with their peers in a common learning environment which allows them to achieve their full potential."

Earlier this month, Guy Arseneault, the president of the teachers association, gave an example of just how complex classroom composition has become under the inclusion policy.

He said he knew of a a high school English class of 28 students where only two students were reading at grade level.

In that class, Arseneault said, two students spoke English as a second language, 12 had personal learning plans, one was on the autism spectrum, two had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, 11 required oral exams, 10 needed scribes to write on their behalf, five had attendance issues and two had mental health concerns.

The current provincial inclusive education policy does not allow segregated programs or classes based on "a disability or exceptionality."

But Heather and Brian said this is a mistake. They agreed the only bright spot during Brian's school career was when he was in a segregated "life-skills" program from Grades 5 through 8.

Heather said she fought to get her son in the class, which is no longer offered under the current inclusion model. 

"I wanted my son to be in one of these life skills classes to help him reach his potential. ... I pulled him from public school and kept him home, stating that he will return to public school when placed into the life skills program."

Saint John's Brian Adams has a job building bicycles and barbeques at Canadian Tire. (Submitted by Heather Adams)
Eventually Brian was enrolled in the program. During those years he joined all of his peers for classes such as gym and music but spent much of his day with small groups of students in a separate class.

The separate class worked on reading, writing, math and skills such as cooking and how to do laundry. Brian also had a "buddy" from the community who came in and built model cars with him.
"He excelled in his learning there," she said. "He learned how to completely spell his name, he learned his alphabet, all his colours ... then in Grade 9, he went to high school and then he started to regress."

Resources weren't available

Heather believes her son could have achieved higher reading and math skills, but there weren't the resources in the inclusive classroom.

She advocated for her son throughout his time in school but said she was often told by educators that although her ideas were listened to, the resource teacher would choose the method of learning.

"As far as [Brian's] social skills, he was fine on that, and that's probably the only thing that came from school," she said.
Brian now works at a local hardware store unloading trucks and building everything from bicycles to barbeques, which is what he enjoys and what he is good at.

He would have his driver's licence right now if he had been able to read.- Heather Adams

His mother said that since graduating, he has enrolled in a literacy class and is now reading at a Grade 3 level. She is thrilled with his progress but convinced he could have, and should have, made that progress while still in high school.
"He would have his driver's licence right now if he had been able to read. Even at work there's different notices and stuff he has to get people to read. ... Even texting with the girls. He brings the phone to me to find out  — 'What's she saying?' At 20 years old he probably doesn't want Mom reading the texts that the girls send him."

Looking back, Brian said he didn't enjoy school, "not one bit," and he would have preferred to be separate from the regular classroom.

"This full, 100 per cent inclusion did not work for my son," Heather said.

This is the first of two stories looking at the impact of New Brunswick's inclusive education policy on students and their families. Wednesday's story will focus on the elimination of enrichment courses for students in Grades 9 and 10.


Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email:


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