Close call for autism camp

While it may have come to a happy ending, a summer camp for autistic children that was on the verge of cancellation has some parents wondering how teachers can claim to be fighting for children when it’s them being affected most by the labour dispute.

Called the 2014 Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Camp, the month-long summer program was created by two behavioral specialists as a way for autistic children to receive specific one-on-one attention as well as learn key socialization skills.

The camp has run in Surrey for the past couple of years and was held at South Surrey’s Earl Marriot Secondary School last summer. The land is donated for use by the school district and ABA Camp co-founder Leah Mumford had hoped to hold the program at the same site again this year, until the teachers’ labour dispute happened.

Instead, the camp was unable to secure the site for the 2014 iteration due to picket lines, leading to a rush to find a new location.

"We had a verbal agreement with Earl Marriott, as well as informal arrangements with EMS staff, but not a written contract yet, as we wanted to wait to see what the teachers strike/job action would lead to," said Mumford, who confirmed Wednesday a new site had been found at a local church.

But during the search for a new venue, parent Danny Stahl was upset that the 40 or so children affected were having to pay the price as a result of the labour dispute. Stahl’s four-year-old son Lucas was diagnosed with autism last year and is set to attend the camp for the first time ever this year, but when they were left scrambling for a new location, he wondered how teachers can claim to be doing this for the children.

"This is the only time of the year that many of them (the kids) can be amongst others like them," he said. "There’s a lot of effort that goes into making these children productive members of society and what they’re doing by taking this away is instead of doing it for the kids they’re actually handicapping them, they’re actually making things worse for them."

Especially upsetting for Stahl is that as much of a child’s formative years are before the age of six, his son could be potentially losing out on one of the few opportunities to shape the rest of his life. In B.C., parents of children with autism are given $22,000 per year until their child turns six. The funding is meant to help the families continue a behavioural plan of intervention during those early important years.

"These are formative years, we have until age six before most synaptic connections are made," said Stahl. "With an ABA kid you have to teach him every motion. Each connection has to be made one-by-one.

"Parents are outraged, they wonder how on earth teachers can claim to be doing this for the kids when it’s precisely kids that are suffering."

For fellow parent Elaine Raynault, her 13-year-old son Rowan has already had his routine disrupted by the job dispute and the prospect of not attending the camp threatened to further upset them both.

"Some children were thrilled to get an early summer…but this is not the case for our most vulnerable children," she said in an email. "The children who do not have the ability to understand why their security and routine have been stripped away. They don’t understand why their schedules are changing and why their already stressed out parents are crying more than usual."

When asked about the autism camp, Surrey Teachers’ Association President Jennifer Wadge said it was never the intention of teachers to picket out the autistic children

and that it was an unfortunate byproduct of the job action, which White, co-creator of the camp, understands.

"We have frequently been in the position of witnessing the students that we work with not getting the support we believe they need due to lack of funding and have seen teachers doing their best to manage classrooms with multiple students both identified and unidentified needs," said White.

Wadge said Earl Marriott is scheduled to be picketed throughout July due to summer school classes being scheduled there.

However, that wasn’t good enough for Stahl, who’s spoken to teachers himself about the issue.

"They’ve all said you have to see the big picture, but I don’t care what big picture justifies denying autistic children from going to a summer camp," said Stahl. "They’re entitled to their dispute with Christy Clark and I’m sure somehow, somewhere, somebody will benefit but I can tell you it’s not autistic kids that are benefitting from this."

Wadge said she sympathizes with Stahl’s concerns and said special needs were actually part of why they were out on the picket lines.

"I understand that the parents would be upset but the thing holding us up at bargaining right now isn’t salary, it’s support for kids with special needs," she said. "This is a long-term impact and he’s (Stahl) not got his child in school yet but I think he’d be surprised to see how few supports there are for children with special needs. That’s the fight we’re fighting now. And that would be something that would have direct impact on a child like his."