At Maskwacis schools, a supports-first approach is helping students showing signs of autism

The Maskwacis Education Schools Commission is finding ways to support students before they get a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The Maskwacis Education Schools Commission is finding ways to support students before they get a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Schools in Maskwacis, Alta., are using an inclusive services program that provides supports for students showing learning and developmental delays before the children's challenges are officially diagnosed.

The Maskwacis Education Schools Commission (MESC) operates 11 schools in Maskwacis, a community of four Cree First Nations about 70 kilometres south of Edmonton.

Akameyimowin — Cree for "to persevere and achieve" — started in 2019 at Ermineskin Elementary School for students presenting with some form of neurodivergence, developmental delay or other social or life-skill needs.

The students get targeted support and resources before they get an official diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or another condition.

The help could be in the form of an occupational therapists or speech pathologist. For students with low verbal abilities, the support might include an iPad or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device or the use of more visual aids in the teaching.

The idea is to provide students with the right help to do well in schools right away and be successful.

Students are enrolled in the program itself or are provided with services in their regular classes.

Trina Ertman, inclusive services co-ordinator for the commission's elementary schools, said the program works by co-ordinating with families.

"We like to observe and provide services and really develop relationships with the families to see where we think the child might get the most support," Ertman told CBC.

Submitted by Trina Ertman
Submitted by Trina Ertman

Not all students who present with learning difficulties have autism, Ertman said. They may be new to a structured school environment, or have suffered trauma, Whatever the reason, the program is focused on providing help first.

Ertman said even if the students do present with neurodivergent symptoms, the schools speak to parents first to make sure they should consider seeking a formal diagnosis for ASD.

When first introduced, the program had 18 students.

Ertman said in the years since, the program has expanded to five schools and is now helping a total of 45 students. She said some students will transition in and out of the program throughout the school year.

Out of the 45 students in the program this year, 28 are going through the process of receiving an official diagnosis.

Identifying students needing help

Heather Littlechild, inclusive services co-ordinator for MESC at the high-school level, said teachers are trauma-informed and sensitive to student needs.

"With that mindset they're more often to reach out to say, 'Hey, this student is not really getting this ... what can we do then?'" she said.

She said once a teacher recognizes that a student needs more help, the teacher will come to her. She will observe the students and talk to them about what their needs.

Barriers to diagnosis

Grant Bruno, a University of Alberta professor studying what life is like for families of kids with autism in Maskwacis, said the program is a "great thing." He said he knows from his own experience that getting a diagnosis can be a huge challenge.

Bruno has two sons on the autism spectrum.

"Studies have shown that early intervention is key to making sure a child has good well-being later on in life," he said.

Bruno said that before his sons were assessed, they were on a year-long waiting list. The process involved several other steps before they were officially diagnosed.

He said while his family was able to relocate to Edmonton for better services, there are families in Maskwacis that don't have the same privilege.

Bruno's research has also found that stigma stemming from trauma is a barrier when it comes to helping children.

"[Parents]might not want to get one because then child or family services might get involved," he said.

Process for formal diagnosis

Ertman said the process to get a formal diagnosis is long and demanding, so she and her colleagues are there for parents every step of the way.

"They have to be vulnerable enough to kind of talk about early developments, talk about pregnancy, all of that kind of stuff with us," she said.

Parents also have to figure out transportation as most services are available either in Edmonton or Camrose. "A lot of families live below the poverty line, so they don't always have a working vehicle to get there," Ertman said.

There are also tests, checklists and other paperwork that parents must complete while also dealing in some cases with language barriers and generational trauma.