Tuesday, April 2, 2019, is recognized internationally as World Autism Day. The Ministry of Education, Innovation, Gender relations and Sustainable Development is pleased to join the international community in recognizing this day to raise awareness of people affected by this disorder.
Persons with autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience challenges in three (3) main areas:
- Impaired social skills, such as reduced interest in others and limited eye contact
- Repetitive behaviours, such as hand flapping, rocking and resistance to change
- Disordered communication, such as delayed speech and language for imaginative play
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a unique profile of strengths and needs, and experiences of autism present with varied levels of severity. Autism is also often accompanied by an array of other complications, such as sensitivity to sensory stimulation, digestive irregularities and medical issues. It must also be noted that some individuals have co-occurring diagnoses, i.e. affected by multiple disorders, including autism.
The Ministry is aware that a number of learners in the education system are on the autism spectrum, and it plays an increasing role in supporting the educational needs of these exceptional learners. The Special Education Unit of the Ministry collaborates with various governmental and non-governmental agencies, such as the Community Child Health Service and the Child Development and Guidance Centre, to assess and identify cases of autism.
Having identified these learners with ASD, the Ministry provides a range of learning placement options, dependant on the assessed severity of autism, and the education needs of the individual. Some students with ASD have a high level of intellectual functioning. These learners access the national curriculum at mainstream schools but are permitted to have a personal aide to provide support services, such as staying on task and minimizing potential disruptions to learning for the rest of the student body. Other students more severely affected by autism access their learning at special schools, where the learning environment is more adequately adapted to their educational and functional needs. At special schools, in addition to accessing their capacity of academic content, students learn practical skills, some directed at achieving independence, while other skills taught have employment potential.
Worldwide, autism is one of the fastest growing disorders in prevalence. In the last two decades, there has been more than a 600% increase in autism cases in the United States, with the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) admitting that reported survey figures are likely inaccurate due to a lag in reporting. In St Lucia, an estimated 253 identified cases some years ago was thought to be an underestimation at the time and likely did not include older persons in the population.
With its thrust towards Education for All, the Ministry is committed to intentionally supporting students with special educational needs. Among the special school population in St Lucia, there are approximately 55 students diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Of these, the highest concentration is at Dunnottar School, which currently has three (3) classes specifically serving children on the spectrum. This commitment has led to the development and implementation of the Education Quality Improvement Project (EQuIP which is highly focused on enhancing and supporting special educational needs in Saint Lucia. The EQUIP aims to support the sector through a number of interventions including:
- Curriculum review with a focus on special education integration
- Development of a special need policy
- Provision of assistive devices for children with special needs
- Provision of direct in-service and degree level training for educators within the sector. Training will also be extended to the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College’s Division of Teacher Education and Educational Administration to augment the competence of teacher educators to be better equipped in preparing our teachers to support children with special needs
Of equal importance to the Ministry of Education is ensuring that our special needs children are catered to in appropriate, and adequate learning environments. Thus, the EQUIP project and a new project currently at the development stage coined the Programme for Education Realignment and Transformation (PERT) will be undertaking the reconstruction of the Dunnattor and Vieux Fort Special Education Centres. These centres will be equipped with new technologies and supporting infrastructure to be better able to cater to our most vulnerable.
Our reality in St. Lucia is that we can benefit significantly from improvements in awareness and resources needed to effectively cater to children with autism. Many persons are unaware or poorly informed about the disorder, its presenting characteristics and how to appropriately interact with individuals affected by it. Sadly, many persons with autism in St. Lucia are still subject to micro-aggression such as bullying and name-calling. Too many people with autism and other special needs are ostracized by peers as well as persons in positions of authority, all because of a lack of education and empathy.
The Ministry is committed to redoubling its efforts to improve a lot of the community of persons on the autism spectrum. We believe that through education and training, learners with autism can gain sufficient independence for self-management and gainful employment. We remain resolved in our commitment to preparing these individuals and all other learners to become productive 21st-century citizens.