A panel tasked with improving Ontario's autism services has recommended sweeping changes to the controversial program introduced by the Progressive Conservative government earlier this year.
The panel says its proposed changes would remove barriers to access, provide families with more support and widen the suite of treatment options for children with autism. However, the panel also says caps on individual services will be necessary, and wait-list challenges are likely to persist.
"The panel believes its recommendations for a new Ontario Autism Program should be cause for hope for children and youth on the autism spectrum and their families," wrote co-chairs Margaret Spoelstra and Marie Bountrogianni.
The 20-member panel included parents, adults with autism and a range of experts in areas like education and psychology. The panel's report was released Wednesday.
The Ford government convened the panel in July with the goal of redesigning its Ontario Autism Program (OAP), which had been intensely criticized by parents and autism experts since it was unveiled in February.
Concerned families said the changes made by the Ford government — in which families receive a fixed amount for treatment based on income and their child's age — prevented children from accessing critical services.
The system allows for up to $20,000 per year for children under six, and $5,000 per year for children between six and 18. Intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 annually.
The PCs' move to a direct funding model replaced the system established by the previous Liberal government, which fully funded autism therapy, though only for children who reached the top of a lengthy wait list.
Todd Smith, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, said he welcomed the recommendations, which the government aims to have in place in April 2020.
"I'm looking forward to working on this as the foundation of our new Ontario Autism Program," Smith told reporters at Queen's Park. "We want to help as many kids as we possibly can and move them through the system as quickly as we possibly can."
He added that some of the recommendations could be implemented sooner than next spring, though he did not say which ones, as the government has not yet had time to thoroughly examine the report.
The OAP has an annual budget of $600 million and currently serves approximately 11,500 children. Around 23,000 more children are on the wait list for treatment.
Around one in 66 Canadian children are diagnosed with the neurological condition, including some 40,000 in Ontario, according to Autism Ontario.
Better access to 'core services'
The panel is recommending several changes designed to give families in need easier access to autism services.
One proposal calls for an expansion of the "core services" available to children, including applied behaviour analysis, which parents overwhelmingly listed as their preferred treatment method.
The report also calls for speech language pathology services and occupational therapy to be made available to families in the OAP.
Parents who contributed to the report said further recommendations to expand access to mental health services will be particularly impactful.
Around 70 per cent of autistic children experience mental health challenges as they enter adolescence, according to the report.
"We were very passionate about making sure that mental health services were included for our children and youth," said parent Christine Levesque.
She expressed confidence that the Ford government would earnestly consider the recommendations and make positive changes to the program.
Wait lists will remain
The recommendations also call for improved access to early intervention services on a "time-limited" basis for children with a confirmed autism diagnosis. Parents consulted by the panel said those services were critical for the years before a child enters the school system.
However, the panel said budget limitations prevented them from fully tackling the province's wait list problems.
The panel said doing so would have come at the expense of delivering evidence-based, clinically appropriate treatments for children in the system.
Spoelstra and Bountrogianni also said annual caps on individual services will be "unavoidable into the foreseeable future."