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Suspended Tory MPP says comments weren't directed at parents of kids with autism

Last Updated Feb 20, 2019 at 4:51 pm EDT

Ontario Conservative MPP Randy Hillier speaks with journalists outside the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Feb. 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Premier Doug Ford suspended a member of his caucus Wednesday for comments made as parents of children with autism packed the legislature’s galleries, angry about funding changes they say are woefully inadequate.

Some of the parents said that Randy Hillier said “yada yada yada” to them near the end of question period, but Hillier said the remarks were directed at the NDP.

Nevertheless, Ford suspended Hillier indefinitely from the Tory caucus, saying his comments were disrespectful to parents of children with autism.

“Mr. Hillier’s comments crossed the line and that is unacceptable,” the premier said.

Hillier, for his part, said he was sorry if the comments meant for the NDP had upset the families.

“I apologize to the parents present who may have felt that my comments were directed at them,” he said. “They were not, and never would be.”

Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod announced autism funding changes this month that would see families get up to $20,000 per year for treatment for children under six and $5,000 a year for children six to 18, up to a lifetime maximum of $140,000.

But intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year, and parents – some of whom watched question period Wednesday while wiping tears away – are calling for funding to be based on children’s individual needs, instead of just their age.

Nancy Silva-Khan is the mom to seven-year-old twin boys on the severe end of the autism spectrum. They are currently in 30 hours a week of publicly funded therapy at a cost of $120,000 for both children. When the new program takes effect in a few weeks she will get less than $10,000 per year to pay for their therapy.

“They have chosen to provide a grain of rice for a therapy famine experienced by the autism community,” Silva-Khan said.

Her boys have made great strides in therapy, she said, including learning to feed themselves with a spoon and undress themselves.

“They no longer hit me while bathing,” she said. “They have stopped violently banging their heads on the window of a vehicle whenever stopped at a red light. My boys can now scream ‘ma’ when they need me. Intensive (applied behaviour analysis) therapy works, regardless of age.”

Stephanie Ridley, mom to a seven-year-old boy who is non-verbal, said the amount of funding each family will get will not be enough for many children, using an analogy.

“Every kid in this province, (MacLeod) says, deserves a pair of glasses, and they just got them all with no lenses,” Ridley said. “Not every kid needs intensive therapy. We’re just asking for what each kid individually needs.”

MacLeod has said that her goal with the new program is to clear a backlog of 23,000 children waiting for treatment, saying it’s unfair that only about 8,400 are currently receiving funded therapy. She said that the flow of kids coming off the wait list had slowed to a trickle, leading her to believe that if she didn’t make changes, they would stay on that list forever.

But many of those on the list say they’d rather wait for full funding.

Only families with an adjusted annual net family income of under $55,000 will be eligible for the maximum annual amounts, with funding determined on a sliding scale up to a $250,000 income.

Parents, who are planning a protest at the legislature March 7, said they won’t back down in demanding changes.

“If they want to keep doing this, we’ll keep dancing,” said Kristen Ellison, mom to an eight-year-old in treatment for 25 hours a week. “We can’t do it every day, but there’s a parent behind us who will replace us when we have to fall back. I am not going away.”

Statement by Randy Hillier

As any observer of Question Period is aware, significant banter is exchanged between both sides of the Legislature. 

The banter during today’s Question Period escalated as the NDP Caucus continued to politicize the emotional challenges and hardships of the many families of autistic children who were present. 

I found the exploitation of these families by Members of the NDP Caucus disheartening.

I’m proud of the work my friend Minister Lisa MacLeod has done to clear the waiting list and provide funding for every child with autism. 

At the end of Question Period as Members were leaving their seats, Monique Taylor continued to politicize these hardships so I caught the eye of Ms. Taylor and simply said to her “Yada yada yada.”

In my twelve years in office I do not recall any Member heckling a spectator in the gallery and all banter is always between Members on the floor of the House.

I apologize to the parents present who may have felt that my comments were directed at them; they were not, and never would be.  

Randy Hillier