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Parents burst into tears as Ontario reveals autism program faces another delay

Last Updated Dec 17, 2019 at 5:00 pm EST

Hundreds march from Nathan Phillips Square to Queen's Park on April 29, 2019, to protest the government's changes to autism funding. CITYNEWS/Erica Natividad

Parents of children with autism burst into tears Tuesday as the Ontario government announced another delay in getting those kids the services they need.

Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith announced that a needs-based program will be phased in over two years, instead of being up and running in April as previously promised.

Parents who were watching the announcement, some of them clutching pictures of their children, began weeping and saying, “not good enough.”

“We’re desperate for help from this government and they’re giving us nothing,” Faith Munoz said later. “This is garbage. This is a very sour Christmas for our families.”

Once fully up and running in 2021, the program will offer core services that include Applied Behaviour Analysis, speech language pathology, occupational therapy and mental health supports, time-limited urgent services for families in immediate crisis, early intervention for young children, school readiness services, and workshops and other training for families.

Smith said only the workshop and family training piece will be ready in April. The rest is underway and will be rolled out as soon as possible, he said, but it is complex and will take time to fully implement.

“We’re building a program that recognizes that every family’s experience is different and that children and youth on the autism spectrum have different levels of need at different points in their lives,” Smith said.

“The end result will be a program that gives families access to multiple pathways of care.”

Smith had already signalled that an expert panel’s report from last month would form the foundation of the new program, and he said Tuesday he accepts its key recommendations.

Many details of the new plan are yet to be worked out, and Smith announced an implementation panel to sort out issues such as caps on the amount of services kids can receive under the new plan _ a recommendation the panel made reluctantly – as well as the transition of kids into service and the role of professionals to co-ordinate care.

In the meantime, families will be invited to apply by March for interim funding of either $20,000 or $5,000 to pay for services, depending on their child’s age _ the maximum annual amounts they were to get under a failed plan announced earlier this year.

That plan sparked outrage, forcing the government to go back to the drawing board and nearly double the amount of money it will allocate to an autism program.

Then-minister Lisa MacLeod, who was ultimately demoted, justified the program by saying the wait list of about 23,000 children needed to be cleared. But many parents said they preferred to wait under the old Liberal government program, knowing that once off the waiting list their child would get the needed amount of therapy.

“We must remember this was self-inflicted…. They did not need to scrap an entire program instead of making enhancements to that program,” said Kristen Ellison, whose nine-year-old son is on the autism spectrum.

“Not only did you do it to yourselves, but you did it to the most vulnerable children in this province. It’s unacceptable. It’s disgusting. It’s abhorrent and we need better from this government.”

Smith said he wanted to assure families that the interim payments do not mean the new program will look like his predecessor’s.

“While this may feel like more of the same, I want to reaffirm this is not a reflection of where we’re going,” he said. “We’re transitioning to a needs-based program, but it’s important to us (that) families receive supports during this time.”

NDP children and youth services critic Monique Taylor said kids with autism need services now, not in 2021.

“Any further delay in implementing needs-based autism programming is completely unacceptable and could irreparably damage so many children’s developmental potential,” Taylor said in a statement.