Major overhaul of autism and special needs supports causing concern, confusion for some B.C. parents

·3 min read
Sam and Lana Kirk say it took nearly seven years to get a proper diagnosis and the right supports for their eight-year-old son, Matthew. They say they worry the new system means he would no longer get supports that focus on his particular needs.  (CBC - image credit)
Sam and Lana Kirk say it took nearly seven years to get a proper diagnosis and the right supports for their eight-year-old son, Matthew. They say they worry the new system means he would no longer get supports that focus on his particular needs. (CBC - image credit)

Changes to the province's delivery of supports to families of children with autism and other developmental disabilities are causing concern and confusion for some B.C. parents.

Currently, children with diverse needs in B.C. need a medical specialist's diagnosis to get the help they need.

Under the Ministry of Children and Family Development's new "one-stop family connections hubs" system, parents will be able to quickly access support — including expert intervention and therapies — without a diagnosis.

But the announcement of the new system has left many advocates and parents with more questions than answers.

Sam and Lana Kirk spent nearly seven years learning how the current system works to get an autism diagnosis for their high-functioning eight-year-old son, Matthew.

The Kirks say they are worried the new needs-based system for such a broadly-defined neuro-disorder will mean Matthew's supports won't be focused on his particular needs.

"Now what they're saying is 'we are going to do it in this hub, and we will decide who the providers are,' instead of us finding the right providers that fit with the needs that our child has," said Sam Kirk.

As part of B.C.'s current funding model for autistic children, the Kirks receive $6,000 per year and are able to pick and choose what supports are best for Matthew.

For Michelle Boshard, the current autism funding model has been critical to finding the right therapists to support her 17-year-old son, Aaron, whose behavioural complexities include a tendency to self-harm.

She says she wonders how dangerous her son's behaviour would have to get before they would be given the help he needs.

Michelle Boshard
Michelle Boshard

"In an already difficult situation where parents are already having limitations, it's quite possible the structure and the function of the hubs will be a challenge," she said.

But for parents like Bonnie McBride, whose four out of five children have special needs, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and cerebral palsy (CP), the move to the new hub model is providing hope.

"The model the province has always used has always been diagnosis-based and that's created an environment of exclusion for families that don't fit within that particular diagnosis," McBride said.

She said the current model is creating what she calls an "autism funding bubble," rendering services that are made affordable to families with an autism diagnosis unattainable for others like her children with FASD and CP.

Bonnie McBride
Bonnie McBride

The provincial government says its one-stop family connection widens access, regardless of diagnosis or referral.

Advocacy group BCEd Access says families with children who have complex needs need to be consulted before the connection hubs open so they aren't left out of core services.

Hubs will open in certain parts of the Okanagan in 2023 before launching across the province in 2024.

When that happens, the province says 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 opt into the new hub's services.

The option to receive individualized funding will be phased out by 2025.

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