Doorstep Postings: Philip Lerner explains his effort to make accommodating kids with autism a bigger issue in school board elections

This is the sixth in a series of opinion columns on Ontario’s 2022 municipal elections, written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.

School is back in session, and plenty of thought has gone into accommodating our kids during the extenuating circumstances of the past few years.

But, for students on the autism spectrum, accommodation is still often more difficult than it should be.

Nobody knows this better than Philip Lerner, an autism self-advocate and part of the leadership of the Ontario Autism Coalition. He’s also part of the campaign to elect the president of that organization, Angela Brandt, to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), in the York Centre riding of Toronto.

The seat is currently held by Alexandra Lulka Rotman, who we covered last week, alongside other attention she’s received from The CJN

“I wasn’t brought up in Jewish schools,” Philip tells me, “but the issues in public schools and private schools are the same.”

He sees his activism as being in the tradition of tikun olam, and praises Jewish schools for their high standards—and staff that can readily implement programs.

The catalyst for Philip’s involvement came when former Premier Kathleen Wynne cut funding for Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) when he was a high school student. 

ABA is controversial among autism advocates, but Philip endorses it wholeheartedly: “It’s crucial that parents have as many options as possible, and as many therapies available to them as possible.”

Still, the bigger problem as far as Philip is concerned is the vast differences how one school handles students with autism compared to another. He has fond memories of his time at Wiltshire Elementary in Vaughan, Ont., thanks to a pilot program that is still ongoing. Most students aren’t as lucky as he was.   

“They have two classes there—a special-needs class, and another class where the students are integrated with the rest of the school.”

There’s also a very even ratio of teachers to special needs students at Wiltshire, very close to the ideal of one teacher or special needs assistant to one student. 

In the years since he graduated from high school, and enrolled in a BMath program at the University of Waterloo with a co-op at financial services provider XE, things haven’t gotten much better. According to Philip, the new Ontario Autism program has barely reached any parents, there are delays in enrolling—and there’s already a six-year waiting list.

Many educators aren’t trained to manage students with autism, and many kids are under constant threat of exclusion from field trips because there’s no support available. In some cases, principals are quick to suspend students with autism and punish them for having meltdowns instead of sending them to a place where they can relax. 

“Students being locked in closets is never acceptable,” he says. “But it still does happen.”

There’s also the issue of teachers’ unions sometimes objecting to special needs staff watching how classes are managed. “There are some very valid privacy concerns raised by the unions,” he concedes, “and having other staff in class can be disruptive.”

Philip’s ideal scenario would make exclusions a thing of the past, and have continually evolving Individual Education Plans for children with autism: “Things in school settings change constantly, and the plan has to change with the child.”

He supports Angela Brandt not only because they are friends and colleagues, but because he believes her direct communication style and personal knowledge of the issue will help fix the “broken telephone” style of communication—which leads to school boards interpreting the sometimes-vague standards set out by the provincial government in a patchwork fashion. 

“Her commitment and credibility with the autism community is unquestioned,” he says. “Communication can’t be one way—there has to be clear language in discussions between the province and schools.”

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.