Pilot program changing the lives of Ontario families with autistic children

A new program for children with complex needs is being rolled out in Toronto and advocates are hoping it's a glimpse of what the future could look like. Cynthia Mulligan explains.

By Cynthia Mulligan

A pilot program out of a children’s hospital in Toronto is changing the lives of families who have been desperate to get proper care for their autistic children.

One of those children is five-year-old Kairo, who is autistic and was prone to self-harm and uncontrollable tantrums until his admission into the program.

A few months ago his mother, Nikki Pacheco, was in despair. Her little boy was having temper tantrums and was harming himself, his mother and his brother.

“We couldn’t leave the house. [He] actually missed almost a whole year of school because I couldn’t drop him off at school,” said Pacheco.

She was desperate for help. “I spent two to three years, every day, calling for support, calling for help.”

One day, it was too much and she was forced to call police.

“The officers had to come, it took about four [of them] to restrain him, to give you insight into how explosive these meltdowns were,” said Pacheco. “He spent a week in the hospital, tied up.”

Kairo had been in the hospital before but he was always sent home. This time Pacheco said she couldn’t let the situation go on.

“I said I’m not bringing him home until I have support. It was scary,” said Pacheco. “I dealt with narratives that I was abandoning him … I had to call [the Children’s Aid Society] on myself.”

But that is when things changed, Kairo is now in a pilot program at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and thriving.

He has seven different professionals working with him, including a behavioural therapist, a psychiatrist and a speech pathologist. They have tailored a program to meet his unique needs.

Six months later, Kairo’s behaviour has changed. Slowly, he is learning to communicate through sign language, and he is learning other skills.

“He’s able to do things, hit some amazing milestones,” said Pacheco. “He’s been eating on his own, took initiative. […] He’s no longer using violence to communicate.”

Kairo’s program is also offered at the Children’s Hospital in Ottawa and McMaster Children’s in Hamilton. It helps children with a variety of neuro developmental disabilities, and the results have been astonishing.

“Our service has shown a 90 per cent reduction in missed school days, an over 90 per cent reduction in emergency visits and over 100 per cent reduction in acute care days in hospital. So when we invest in this, it’s remarkable,” said Kathryn Decker, the senior director of Extensive Need Service and Inclusion Programs.

There are 1,200 children are currently in the program, which is at full capacity, but Decker says there are at least hundreds more who could use it.

Pacheco and her older son Osiris say that the program hasn’t only help Kairo, it’s helped them as well.

“I couldn’t have pictured that we were going to be here, I almost got to the point where I didn’t think we were ever going to be here.”

This is the final year of the three-year pilot. The hospitals hope they can show the government that it will save money and not only should they keep up the funding, it should be extended and expanded.

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