Dear Honourable Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley,
I am writing you this letter with a hand in my heart, hoping I could reach out to you – not only as the Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago but also as a father and grandfather.
I am the dedicated mother of 3 boys on the autism spectrum and a fierce activist. I also represent hundreds of families affected by autism locally as the President of the Autism Parents Association of Trinidad & Tobago (APATT).
You see, this is not the first time I’ve written an open letter to a Prime Minister. Almost a year ago, I wrote one to Mrs. Kamla-Persad Bissessar but to date, nothing has been done. Will this letter also fall in deaf ears? Meetings to keep parents happy with promises but no serious outcome? With all due respect Mr. Prime Minister, how much do you really care (By actions and not words) for children with special needs in our nation? Please, show me.
We know how things operate in Trinidad & Tobago. People, including politicians, have a seven- day memory. Every time a shocking act takes place in our nation, everyone expresses disbelief, anger, even embarrassment and promises are made to deal with the matter immediately.
Meetings are held, media is even called and at the end, nothing is done to address the issue. How long do children with autism have to wait Dr. Keith Rowley? A month? Six months? Two years? Ten years? Let me tell you, they have been waiting for fifty-four years from the time Trinidad and Tobago gained independence. Seven Prime Ministers from different political parties preceded you and none of them did anything to seriously address this matter.
Just recently in November, all matters related to children with special needs were moved from the Ministry of Social Development to your office. I had the opportunity to graciously meet Mrs. Webster-Roy some months ago but no updates have been provided as yet. I would like to believe the move is due to the fact that this is an issue close to your heart and you would like to ensure that these children are giving the resources and tools that they urgently need in order to have a chance in life.
Will you help them accomplish this by ensuring your government fulfills its responsibility and duty of guarding and caring for the most vulnerable citizens of our society, our special needs children? Having a little party here and there to cheer them up is nice but when the substantial and critical issues that could help them in life are neglected or ignored the parties and celebrations become nothing but a facade. Autism is certainly not a facade; autism is a serious development disorder that affects entire families.
Every parent dreams for a healthy child. Every parent wishes to provide their children with everything they can possibly need. Dr. Rowley your own children enjoyed the benefits of receiving a proper education with qualified teachers just like thousands of children receive every single day.
Why are children with autism denied this opportunity? Do you know that Trinidad & Tobago does not have public and free schools (With qualified teachers) that can cater exclusively for them? Do you know a lot of our children are spending their days looking at the four walls at home because they have no school to go to?
Do you know a lot of our parents have no choice but to take their children to work because they are unable to pay the exorbitant fees of private education with unqualified staff? Figures between 10,000TT to $22,000TT per term?
Funding private organizations, schools or NGO’s does nothing to address the issue. The funds never reach the parents and if they do, they do so in a very small scale. Autism is not about organizations and funding, that needs to stop. Autism is about individuals and families affected by the condition and the commitment of a caring Prime Minister and Government who can directly help them by providing these schools through the state.
Autism is a neurological challenge therefore children with autism need their own school where they can be exposed to therapy, learn to self-regulate, be taught social skills, etc. Lumping students with different challenges and calling it a “Special Needs School” is not the way to go.
There are hundreds of community centers around the country where small classes could be held during the week for these children and utilize the services of the hundreds of special needs teachers that are currently in the educational system but that they are not being given the opportunity to work with special needs students.
Hon. Prime Minister, will you urgently address this issue and ensure our children are provided with a proper education? If you do not plan to address it urgently : Will you be able to sleep comfortably at night knowing that their future is in your hands and every day that passes you are depriving them of their innate rights that can help them succeed in life?
Honourable Prime Minister, these children will soon become adults. Will they be roaming the streets when the parents are no longer with them? Will they become the future vagrants in Port of Spain or San Fernando? Will they become the perfect victims for the criminal elements in our society? Will they become the unemployed, the depressed, and the suicidal? ALL of this because they are being denied their right to an education? Can you live with that?
I am not asking for a handout or favors. I am asking that my children’s rights to education be respected immediately. Every day that passes and two of my children are home instead of being in a proper school, it’s a day that I mourn. A day that is lost. I cannot turn back time. I’m terrified of the day that my husband and I will no longer be with them. Unless you are in my shoes, you have no idea how that feels. I am pleading with you, from a parent to parent, that you can urgently address this issue.
I am asking you, Dr. Keith Rowley, that you become the First Prime Minister in Trinidad & Tobago to open the first school for children with autism in our country. Autism does not know of recessions or oil prices.
Autism does not know of tax or politics. Autism knows of low, medium and high-functioning, delayed speech developments or lack of speech, cognitive and social impairment, sensory overload meltdowns, cognitive related issues, aggression and self-injury between others. Autism also knows of visual thinking, artistry, rote memory, special interests, and advanced computer skills in some cases that could help these children learn and succeed.
The ball is on your court Dr. Rowley and our children’s future is in your hands.
President of the Autism Parents Association of Trinidad & Tobago (APATT)
Image from government website: TTParliament.org