Ontario’s social services minister opened the door Thursday to giving more funding to children with more severe autism, which an advocacy group described as a “huge concession” in the province’s controversial plan.
The new program announced last month by Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod sparked waves of protests by parents, who said the fact that the funding wouldn’t be needs based — instead, dependent only on age and family income — would mean kids would be left without access to the levels of therapy they need.
MacLeod said Thursday that the past month has been “incredibly emotional” for families, and she has heard their concerns.
“Parents were right when they said that autism is a spectrum and that there are different needs for children on the spectrum,” she said. “So for the next few months I’ll take their input to best assess how we better support those with complex needs and provide additional supports for them.”
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, the president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said the devil will be in the details, but called the news is a very positive development.
“Oh my God, she heard us,” Kirby-McIntosh said. “I heard a commitment to move to a system that is needs-based and that doesn’t simply give everybody the same amount regardless of need, so that’s a huge concession.”
MacLeod, until now, had been firm in her message that the plan would go ahead as is, and that there was no room to provide additional funding. She said Thursday that more money would go into the program to provide the new needs-based supports, but couldn’t say yet how much more.
MacLeod also announced she is eliminating income testing for the program, so all kids under six diagnosed as on the spectrum will receive $20,000 and kids over six will receive $5,000. The plan as originally designed would only give those maximum amounts to families making under $55,000.
Intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year and many parents with kids already in government-funded therapy have said they will be unable to cover the difference to keep their kids in full-time therapy.
Kids currently receiving government-funded therapy will have their contracts extended by six months, MacLeod said.
“While we empathize with them, our priority has been and always will be to eliminate the wait list,” she said. The government has said there are 23,000 kids on the wait list.
Families had also been asking for more services to qualify under the program and MacLeod said Thursday that speech language pathology, physiotherapy and occupational therapy will now be included.
NDP critic Monique Taylor criticized the announcement of new consultations with parents less than two weeks before the plan starts April 1.
“They should have done the work before they made the announcement and put the policy in place,” she said. “They’ve put families in chaos for the last month and a half for no reason.”