Ontario launching autism program in March with initial enrolment of 600 children

·3 min read

TORONTO — Ontario's new autism services program will launch in March for 600 children following months of delay, but critics said it would do little to help thousands of families who remain waiting for support.

Social Services Minister Todd Smith announced the launch on Wednesday, saying the program will include applied behaviour analysis, speech language pathology, and occupational therapy.

It will expand through the year to include 8,000 more children by the end of 2021, Smith said, noting that the phased approach will allow the government to refine the program.

"This isn't easy work," he said, adding that the program's launch had been slowed by the pandemic.

"No government's ever gotten this right. And we want to ensure that we never have to come back here, to start from scratch."

The Progressive Conservative government's handling of autism services has been mired in controversy since it made changes to the program shortly after taking office in 2018.

After that plan failed, the government pledged to launch a new autism services program in April 2020 but Smith announced in late 2019 that it would instead be phased in over two years.

At that time, an interim funding program was put in place to help families pay for eligible services.

Smith said Wednesday that the interim funding will stay in place for children who are not immediately accepted into the new program.

"As we launch core services, I want to assure parents that we're committed to continuing support for children and families as we roll out the program," he said.

"This will take time, but we're extending behaviour plans until individuals transition to core clinical services."

Smith said the government has committed $600 million annually to the new autism program, double the initial amount spent when the Tories took office.

The president of the Ontario Autism Coalition said families are not happy with the long wait or the new plan itself.

"It's been 462 days ... and it's taken them that long to only move 600 children into core services," Angela Brandt said. "This is not a full rollout of the program. It is a pilot project."

Brandt said the autism community also does not support service caps based on age, which the new program puts in place for children.

"The idea behind needs-based therapy is to provide the child with what that individual actually needs, as opposed to putting them into some category," she said.

NDP youth services critic Teresa Armstrong said the new program is "devastating" news for families of children with autism.

“It’s not needs-based, and only a tiny fraction of the children who need help are going to get any at all," she said in a statement.

Last July, Ontario's fiscal watch dog said the government would need to more than double the funding for child autism services if it hoped to fulfill its goal of eliminating a long-standing waiting list for treatment.

Financial Accountability Officer Peter Weltman said in a report that the 2019-20 waiting list stood at 27,600 children, up from 25,900 in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Weltman’s report, which examined three different funding options ahead of the government’s planned program launch, concluded the $600 million currently allocated to the effort won’t be enough to eliminate the wait list entirely.

Providing the province’s estimated 42,000 autistic children with service will cost more than double that amount, he said at the time - an estimated $1.35 billion in the first year of the program.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press