Dear Honourable Madam Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar,
I am writing you this letter as a mother of 3 children with autism living in Trinidad. Rest assured, I have no political interest or affiliation. My only alliance is with my children as their progenitor, protector, caregiver, teacher and advocate.
At the 34th Meeting of the Conference of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in 2013 you disclosed a very personal piece of information when you stated: “My granddaughter is autistic”. I was elated, I thought that for the first time a high-ranking politician, that happen to be a woman and a mother like me would understand or empathize deeply with the serious struggles of a fellow mother trying to raise 3 children under the autism spectrum in a country that provides very little resources. Is it that you have forgotten us? Is it that your government does not consider our special needs children important enough or worthy enough as to ensure they can reach their full potential?
Madam Prime Minister, the Minister of Education has been saying for years that the Government would ensure to provide psychologists, aides, and therapists for special needs students in the school system as well as the construction of special needs schools. You have stated in the past that differently-able children have been neglected for far too long and measures are being put in place to assist those with special needs.
I am glad that you recognize that our children have been neglected for so long but let me categorically state that they continue being neglected since none of the promises of past Ministers and Prime Ministers as well as the promises of your present government have come to fruition. What exact measures that have been put in place are you referring to? Certainly not the construction of special needs schools for children under the autism spectrum. Certainly not programs that can provide between 15 to 40 hours of weekly needed therapy for them. Certainly not programs that can provide respite time for home-bound parents who take care of their children 24/7 without any help or assistance. Certainly not bringing specialized doctors that can assess and diagnose the children. I read that you have plans to provide laptops or tablets for Primary School students as a gift to them. What about autistic children who are the ones that need it the most? Why not them? Did you know that tablets are used worldwide to help children in the spectrum to communicate and learn?
Madam Prime Minister, do you know that parents have to wait for at least one year to see a doctor in the public health sector and start the process of getting their child assess? Do you know that a lot of parents have to sacrifice all they have in order to pay for private assessments that cost thousands of dollars? Madam Prime Minister, are you aware that they have little choice but to pay for private therapy that cost hundreds of dollars per half an hour session?
Parents are forced to put their children in the public school system without an aide or homeschool because they cannot afford the exorbitant fees of private schooling. Fees with 5 figure numbers, please imagine that. Fees for places where not all the teachers possess formal qualifications in special education.
I am quite confident that you are aware that children under the spectrum are exceedingly bright and the methods used to teach them must be different from the ones used for neuro-typical children. Autistic children need their own school since their method of learning is not based on 'cramming for examinations' but life skills, therapy, learning to self-regulate, social skills, etc. Lumping students with different challenges and call it a “Special Needs School” is not the way to go. No, Madam Minister they need a place of their own with qualified and caring professionals that every child no matter their background or financial situation can attend, a place of refuge in a world that they struggle terribly to understand.
We need help here and now. I do not want you to think that the solution of these issues will be Government funding private organizations associated with autism and believe that it is enough to help the parents. It is not. Private entities run their organizations according to their own regulations, their interpretation of what is needed and their own priorities. What is desperately needed is proper and public-Government schools and programs for children under the spectrum so parents do not have to rely on private entities or private therapists. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the countless issues that we face every single day in Trinidad and Tobago.
Honourable Prime Minister, I’m just a mother of 3 children with autism who will not stop advocating for them, who will not stop speaking up about the struggles and realities of autism. A mom who will move the Earth if necessary for someone out there, in power, caring enough to listen to my plea and decide to DO something about it. I repeat, to DO something about it: No empty promises, no plans, no words...
Update: The Minister of the People and Social Development acknowledges this letter and I await further word from her.