OTTAWA — The rate of young Manitoba children with autism has doubled from 2004 to 2015, which has teachers calling for more resources.
"We don’t know the exact reasons for this increase," said Amani Hamad, a PhD student at the University of Manitoba. "We don’t want people to be worried about these numbers."
Hamad is part of a team of researchers who pulled up data from Manitoba’s health system and compared how children aged 5 and younger had been diagnosed each year with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
In 2004, there were 229 Manitoba children under 5 living with ASD, of which 80 had been diagnosed that year. By 2015, there were 578 children of that age who had ASD, of which 232 had been diagnosed that year.
Hamad said it’s possible the rate of children with ASD in Manitoba is higher than in the past. Yet the jump in cases could also be caused by better awareness among educators, the public and health professionals, as well as wider criteria for diagnosing ASD.
"We might not be able to know what is the reason for this rise in the number of these cases, because we cannot study one of these factors separately from the others. It’s possible that all of these factors collectively contributed to the rise in ASD cases."
In any case, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society is calling on more supports for special needs children, including autism due to the rise in students presenting with the disorder.
In a brief submitted as part of the province’s K-12 review, MTS called for quotas on both class size and composition, so teachers don’t have too large a proportion of children with special needs in a single class.
The Rehabilitation Centre for Children also cited autism in its submission to the review, arguing referrals for occupational therapists "are increasing steadily each year without staffing increases to meet the needs."
The centre noted if autism needs aren’t meant, students "display behaviours in response to stress, struggle with social participation and negatively impact safety" in class.
However, some parents say they’ve had a good amount of support from both provincial officials and the community writ large.
"We’ve been very lucky here," said David Grenon, whose 10-year-old son was diagnosed around age 5, after what appeared to be a hearing issue led to numerous referrals.
Grenon said "right away" his son had access to speech therapists and full-time educational assistants from the St. James-Assiniboia School Division, to help his son develop core capacities early on in life.
"It has been an amazing support to our family," said Grenon, a vocalist with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Grenon moved to Winnipeg from Quebec shortly after his son’s birth. He’s heard from parents in Ontario and Quebec who seem to have greater difficulty in even getting a diagnosis.
The Ontario government cited the uptick in autism cases in restructuring its educational supports earlier this year, unleashing a firestorm of backlash that continues to this day.
In Winnipeg, the waiting list for some autism services can be as long as nine months, though a few years ago parents were waiting 24 months.
In a statement, Manitoba Education and Training said each student presenting with ASD is assessed for services such as educational assistants, low-arousal training and clinicians as required.
"In Manitoba, a student support team works to identify a student’s unique learning needs and to determine, implement and evaluate appropriate educational programming and supports," a provincial spokeswoman wrote.
The province does not track how many students have ASD, leaving that up to school divisions.
Grenon said groups such as the Autism Society of Manitoba have helped him plot a future for his son, finding as much independence as possible for a disorder that will follow him his whole life.
"It is beautiful to see that with all that, we’ve got an amazing support from the community," he said.