Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith speaks with concerned Londoners at a town hall meeting at Goodwill Industries on Horton Street East, August 13, 2019. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

Community grills minister on provincial autism services

Local residents are accusing the Ontario government of putting the province into a “six-month crisis” as it develops a new autism program, following months of public criticism over the previous PC-implemented funding model.

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith was in London on Tuesday at Goodwill Industries on Horton Street East, to speak with Londoners about the province’s intention to reintroduce an Ontario autism program that focuses on need-based care.  The town hall lasted a half-hour longer than expected after a short-lived Q and A turned heated, resulting in the minister addressing each of the 40 people in attendance one-on-one.

“Clearly we’ve heard from the community that autism does need to be a needs-based approach; that the needs of each child are individual needs and we have to look at each child separately,” said Smith. “Unfortunately, no government has ever gotten this right. It’s taken years, it’s a complex issue and that’s why we’re taking the time now to ensure that we do get it right.”

A 20-member autism advisory panel has been instructed to develop recommendations for the new needs-based and sustainable Ontario Autism Program within a $600 million budget, and then report back to the ministry later this summer. However, the actual program isn’t expected to be implemented until April of 2020, which has left many with autism and their caregivers feeling like they’re stuck in limbo.

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith speaks with concerned Londoners at a town hall meeting at Goodwill Industries on Horton Street East, August 13, 2019. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith speaks with concerned Londoners at a town hall meeting at Goodwill Industries on Horton Street East, August 13, 2019. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

“I’m disheartened by the way this current government has handled this file. [It] has put my community into a six-month crisis and my fear is that when it’s all said and done, adults of the spectrum will have nothing to show for it. That for us, this will have just been another six months and I will go home tonight to face that ticking clock, counting down how many good years I have left in my home, with my family,” Elsbeth Dodman, an adult living with autism, told Smith at the meeting. “I can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Smith said it is not the province’s intent to leave anyone in the lurch, and the government is taking steps to ensure that is not the case.

“We realize during the interim it’s imperfect but we are extending those children who are receiving ABA [applied behaviour analysis] or IBI [intensive behavioural intervention] or who are in the program,” he said. “We’ll be, at the same time, introducing new kids to the Ontario autism program through the childhood budgets… so that there are no gaps in service, [and] we’ll be continuing to get kids off the waitlist.”

However, Katrina McComb, who is autistic and also an eight-year-old son with autism, said the current lack of needs-based autism services in the province led to her taking her son out of IBI therapy. She said taking care of her son full-time forced her to give up her job.

“It’s become way too much for us as parents to deal with and the government needs to stop with their talking points and actually do something,” she said. “The PC government keeps telling us there’s access to all of these services. Meanwhile, all of us know it’s all been frozen.”

McComb also accused the government of waiting until after the federal election in October before moving ahead with the program.

“They’re just putting everybody off for their own agenda, when we have an agenda that needs to be taken care of now,” she said, adding that she has no faith in the effectiveness of the advisory panel. “These kids deserve to have the best life possible. They’re just a little bit different, that’s all — they see the world a whole different way and they need to be able to have that good chance that the rest of us were afforded.”

The PC government announced its intention to change the autism program funding model in late July, after months of protests by parents who were outraged by the province’s retooling of the Ontario Autism Program earlier this year. Under those changes, eligible children under six were capped 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. The change would have made it nearly impossible for parents to afford the same level of intensive therapy, which can cost more than $80,000 a year.

– With files from Miranda Chant