Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod announces enhancements to Ontario Autism Program, March 21, 2019. Screen capture from Twitter.

Government makes changes to controversial autism program

Following significant push back from parents, the Ford government has made some adjustments to its controversial retooling of the Ontario Autism Program.

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod announced Thursday all Ontario families of children diagnosed with autism will now be eligible for some provincial funding — regardless of income. Children under the age of six with autism will receive $20,000 per year in direct funding, and kids six and older will receive $5,000 annually.

The government had previously planned to cap eligible children under six at $20,000 per year up to a life maximum amount of $140,000, while kids who were older than six when they entered the program would only receive up to $5,000 per year up to a maximum of $55,000. Families with total incomes totalling more than $250,000 annually would have been ineligible for funding.

Thursday’s announcement also included expanded services such as speech-language pathology, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy. However, the full details of those services won’t be known until early April.

Children with an existing Ontario Autism Program Behaviour Plan will be able to continue to receive the services outlined until the plan end date, with an option to renew it for an additional six months at the same intensity level.

MacLeod made it clear the government is still working to move all of the estimated 23,000 children off the waitlist for service, but will now consider a combination of how long a child has been waiting along with the focus on early intervention when looking at the list. Considerations will be made for five-year-old children and those 17-year-old to ensure they receive the maximum remaining funding.

“Parents were right when they said that autism is a spectrum and that there are different needs for children on the spectrum,” MacLeod said in a statement. “I’ll take their input for the next several months to assess how we better support those with more complex needs and provide additional sources of support to them.”

NDP Critic for Children and Youth Services Monique Taylor was quick to call out the Conservative government for the program adjustments, stressing they don’t do enough to help families.

“Our message to Doug Ford is: don’t try to fix the unfixable. Parents don’t want tweaks to a bad plan — they want a new plan,” Taylor said in a statement. “Clearly, the pressure families are putting on the government to fix this is having an impact. Their love for their children is beautiful, and the NDP is going to keep standing with them until this program is fixed, and all children living with autism get the evidence-based and needs-based supports they require to progress, thrive, and build their best lives.”

Parents of children with autism held rallies at Queen’s Park and dogged MacLeod at her constituency office and on social media after she first announced changes to the autism program last month.

These new program adjustments are unlikely to stop the parent protests, said Mike Moffatt, the father of two children with autism.

“If anything, parents are emboldened now because they see that the pressure worked,” said Moffatt. “So we are going to be going to the government with our list of recommendations on how to fix this.”

While Moffatt, who is an economics professor at Western’s Ivey Business School, was encouraged by the government’s slight change of heart Thursday, he stressed more improvements need to be made before the program comes into effect.

“We still have a lot of unanswered questions about what services kids will be able to access, how the funding will work, what service providers we can use,” said Moffatt. “There are other things we would like to work with the government on — better regulation of service providers because not all service providers are of the same quality. There are a lot of tweaks we could do with this system… we aren’t asking for more money. We just want to work with the government to come up with the best plan possible.”

Intensive therapy for children with autism can cost more than $80,000 a year, a cost Moffatt noted most parents can’t afford on their own.