B.C. is overhauling its system for providing care for neurodiverse children and those with disabilities — making care available to children aged 19 and under, with or without a diagnosis.
Children in B.C. currently need to have an official diagnosis to access additional care and supports. In a statement, B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development said that under the current system, children who require a high level of care are often being left behind.
The statement said that under a new system, children will be able to quickly access support, including expert intervention and therapies, at "one-stop family connections hubs."
Supports will be available from birth to age 19 and will be based on a child's or youth's individual needs, regardless of whether they have a referral or diagnosis.
Hubs will open in the northwest and central Okanagan in 2023 before launching across the province in 2024.
When the two new hubs become available, parents and caregivers who are receiving individualized autism funding and school-age extended therapy benefits will have the option to continue with the supports they have or to instead opt into the new hub services and supports.
In 2025, the option to receive individualized funding will be phased out.
Children and Family Development Minister Mitzi Dean said the hub system is being brought in using a phased approach to ensure that families can successfully transition into the new program, and that children with autism will continue to receive the same supports.
"A person with a child with autism will be able to walk directly into a hub and get connected with a professional, sit down and look at what the needs of their child are and work together in partnership to create that package of services," she said.
"And the parent then won't be responsible for the ongoing case management and co-ordination of those services."
The province said in a statement the new system will provide help to around 8,300 more children — a 28 per cent increase compared to the current system.
Dean said the previous framework was "fractured" and consisted of a confusing patchwork of programs.
For example, children with fetal alcohol syndrome may have a high level of need but do not qualify for supports under the current system.
"This is about providing B.C. children and youth with a support system that is easier to access and navigate, one that will help them reach their goals and set them on a positive pathway for life," she said.
Dean did not confirm how much the program would cost but said further details would be available in B.C.'s 2022 budget.
Concerns over waitlists
The announcement was welcomed by Speech and Hearing B.C., a non-profit representing 1,200 speech-language pathologists and audiologists in the province.
However, president Becca Yu expressed concerns over an ongoing shortage of specialists who serve neurodiverse children.
"There are some extensive waitlists, particularly since COVID," she told CBC News.
She said the influx of new patients should come with an increase in full time speech-language specialists to address the chronic waitlists.
"Based on our estimation of just children under the age of six, we would have to increase the number of FTE's (full time equivalents) by more than double in order to service the number of children who need services," she said.