Today marks World Autism Awareness Day and local lobbyists are using the opportunity to renew their call for a comprehensive national action plan for special needs children, including those suffering from autism.
In an interview, Director of Support Autism T&T, Dr Radica Mahase said the plan should incorporate educational opportunities, data gathering on special needs as well as inclusion into the job market.
Mahase said many autistic children were suffering because their parents could not afford the costs of diagnosis and treatment.
“There is nothing in place to help those from lower income brackets. The cost of therapy is very high and even to diagnose a child is very expensive,” Mahase said.
She noted that in some cases, the Ministry of Social Development had cut off social welfare grants using a means test.
“The Government is now assessing the parents household income and so if children live with two parents and their grandparents who are collecting a pension, the social welfare officer will say the family income is too high and they will cut off the grant,” Mahase said.
She said not all children are accommodated into the regular school system and private schools were filled to capacity.
Co-founder of Autism Spirit Tracy Hutchinson said the national policy should accommodate children and adults with special education needs and disabilities.
“There are various policies and procedures that exist but nothing cohesive. We do not have a system of universal testing and assessment for children. The Ministry of Education has a plan of some kind to start getting kids assessed in primary schools. That plan is unknown and we have no details. The Ministry does not have the capacity to do a basic assessment. She also said that even though there are many special needs schools, these could not handle the capacity of special needs children.
“The Ministry of Education does not seem to know exactly how many special needs children are in the public school system,” she said. Hutchinson added that the Ministry of Health and Education should be liaising with the Central Statistical Office to do correct data collection.
She also said that children and adults should be afforded the opportunity to be independent through education.
Another co-founder of Autism Spirit Michelle Foreman said there was a shortage of occupational and speech therapist in T&T.
“To get a diagnosis privately can cost between $5,000 to $8,000. A speech therapist costs $400 a visit, the cost of visiting an occupational therapist is $500. We spend $1,000 a week in therapy and none of that is available through the public health care system,” Foreman said.
She said the advertisements for a speech and occupational therapist requires three years of experience.
“Where are they going to get that experience. They will have to go in private practice. The public system is not paying very well so who will leave the private practice and serve in the public health care,” she said.
Under the stewardship of former Education Minister Hazel Manning, Foreman said an evaluation was done which suggested that 250 occupational therapists were needed.
However, she said this number could have increased, noting that there were currently only about 20 occupational therapists in the country.
She noted that a comprehensive policy was needed to deal with the problems associated with special needs.