School Phobia or Environmental Sensitivities? ...
You Be the Judge
By Elizabeth Stutt  
UPdate Spring 1996

Imagine being so acutely aware of your surroundings and their effect on you that you intuitively know where your body should be in space.  Imagine that there is no safe place to be.  Why? Because family finances preclude providing a safe home environment even though Mom knows that her child is environmentally sensitive… and because the child’s school principal refuses to accept the diagnosis of environmental sensitivities.  Yes, he will accept that the child has a school phobia and has another recognized syndrome diagnosable under DSMIV criteria as Tourette’s Syndrome – both medically acceptable diagnoses.  But, he won’t accept the underlying causes of this child’s extreme distress – her environmental sensitivities.
As the mother myself of children with similar problems and one with a similar disorder – Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning Autism – which is also aggravated by environmental sensitivities, my heart goes out to this family.  I know only too well how this child will suffer until a safer environment is provided both at home and at school.
Perhaps providing some information about my son will help you to understand just how difficult life can be for these children.  My son also has an acute awareness of what he can and cannot tolerate.
At four at the height of his behavioural problems, he used to have extreme flop-down tantrums with head banging when I tried to get him ready to go to nursery school.  I can remember carrying him kicking and screaming to the car in the dead of winter and only being able to dress him in the car when he realized that he’d freeze if he didn’t cooperate and get dressed.  Why such a tantrum, you might ask? I understand now that he was using the only form of communication that he had at the time (since he had no functional language) to let me know he had problems with his nursery school environment – one with brand new carpeting! He had just previously been exposed to two months in an assessment unit at a local psychiatric facility – also one with brand-new carpeting, only this time it was the glued-down variety! Is it any wonder his behaviour was off the wall during the entire assessment period?
To this day, when my son is exposed to new carpeting he becomes hyperactive and behaviourally uncontrollable.  However, I now understand the reason for his behaviour and try my best to protect him from such exposures.
 Back to the problem of the child with school phobia.  This child was assigned a visiting teacher for 10 hours per week of instruction at home (home instruction).  However, since the provision of this service is considered a temporary measure, it was decided in conjunction with the child’s psychiatrist – but not her physician specializing in environmental medicine – to integrate the child back into her school environment, which, for her, was a toxic environment.  The visiting teacher was allowed to be with the child at school for the allotted 10 hours per week, but since the child couldn’t cope with being at school even with assistance, she was only able to attend school half days and received only half her program.  Add to this the fact that this child was expected to attend a school which was undergoing renovations!
How many children must suffer needlessly before recalcitrant school boards will accept their responsibility to provide safe, non-toxic environments for our children? For some such as this child with school phobia and Tourette’s Syndrome, the first step will be to provide access to a school which has had no renovations for a least two years – an almost physical impossibility right now within this child’s school board because of its “infinite wisdom” in renovating all of its elementary schools to provide safer, read “more secure”, accommodations for its all-day alternate-day junior kindergarten program which it is now considering chopping!
Providing appropriate accommodations will require acceptance of the fact that environmental sensitivities cause or exacerbate problems in the classroom such as attention, behaviour and learning ability.  These problems are particularly acute for children with pervasive developmental disorders such as Autism and Tourette’s Syndrome.  It will also require a willingness for parents, medical professionals and school board officials to listen to one another and to cooperatively look for solutions in the best interest of the child.
School board officials must realize that since 15 per cent of the population is environmentally sensitive that the likelihood that there is a child or teacher at each and every school with similar problems is extremely high – actually, almost guaranteed.  These students and teachers may or may not be diagnosed.  Or, these teacher or the students’ parents may not have the knowledge, energy and ability to fight the system and may decide not to put forward these needs to the school board.
 In a letter to the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, Dr. W.J. Mahoney, M.D., Ontario Medical Association liaison for the Special Education Advisory Council, acknowledged that:
 “For parents trying to support a child with this type of problem [environmental sensitivities], the extra effort to convince educational personnel of the impact of the syndrome on their child, adds significantly to the distress they experience.  In addition, parents who are affected by the syndrome can experience the same physical symptoms when exposed, in an educational environment, to substances to which they are sensitive.  This can then interfere with their ability to be an effective advocate for their child within that environment.”
It is essential that school boards do everything within their power to reduce the toxic load in our schools.  This will involve the hiring of environmental construction experts for all new construction and renovation projects to ensure that the least toxic building practices are used and that no new or “gently used” carpeting is installed anywhere in our schools.  It is also essential that schools be cleaned with fragrance-free non-toxic cleaners and that schools be well ventilated.
Clearly changes are necessary to prevent the needs of a group of learners from being ignored.  The social, emotional and physical abuse experienced because of school board failure to identify, accept and address these needs is too great.
If you experience some of the following signs and symptoms, you may also have environmental illness:
Learning and behavioural signs and symptoms

· Hyperactivity.
· Irritability.
· Aggression.
· Drowsiness and exhaustion.
· Depression and suicidal tendencies.
· Poor concentration and memory loss.
· Easy distractibility, distracting others.
· Difficulty problem-solving.
· Inconsistent performance.
· Mood and personality changes.
· Recurrent absences from school.
Physical signs and symptoms
· Recurrent headaches, migraines.
· Irritated eyes, recurrent styes.
· Puffy bags or dark circles under eyes.
· Red ears or ear lobes.
· Recurrent earaches and sinusitis.
· Stuffy, runny and/or itchy nose.
· Coughing, wheezing, asthma.
· Mouth breathing and throat clearing.
· Stomach aches or diarrhea.
· Eczema, hives, other skin rashes.
· Light sensitivity, visual disturbances.
· Weakness and dizziness.
· Seizures, convulsions and/or tremors.

Be a part of the solution.  Join the Allergy and Environmental Health Association of Canada, send in a donation to the work of its Education Committee, or purchase a copy of Accommodating the Needs of Students with Environmental Sensitivities.  Use the presentation provided in this student information/advocacy kit to educate your school and school board about the needs of all children for better indoor air quality.

Elizabeth Stutt is the mother of two children (10 and 12) who are environmentally sensitive.  She has taken their needs to the highest level of appeal under the Education Act – the Ontario Special Education Tribunal – and unsuccessfully lodged complaints under the Ontario Human Rights Code.  Ms. Stutt is National Vice President and Education Chair for the Allergy and Environmental Heath Association, as well as Past President of the Ottawa Branch.  She is also the alternate representative for Autism Society Ontario on her local school board’s special education advisory committee.

For more information see Safe Haven for Sensitive Students.