QUEEN’S PARK – Hit with a tidal wave of criticism from parents and child advocates over the changes the Ford government made to the provincial autism programming, the province has recently announced that it will be expanding the scope of its Autism Advisory Panel to provide advice on what a new “needs-based and sustainable program” might look like. The government had announced the cancellation of the previous government’s needs-based system in favour of a plan that would provide parents with a set payment regardless of the programming needed by their child.
“My message to families of children and youth with autism is, we have heard you, and we are taking action,” said Todd Smith, minister of Children, Community and Social Services in a release announcing the step back. “Our government is committed to a needs-based program that provides children and youth with the supports they need to thrive. Over the past number of weeks, I have met with service providers and families of children with autism who share a common goal to provide the best possible care and make a positive difference in the lives of children and families living with autism in Ontario.”
The official opposition was having none of it.
“It is unfortunate that this government finally realized that their plan had failed terribly,” said Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha. “They have caused anxiety, hardship and frustration for parents across the province. What is more, according to the most recent announcement, they will have no plan in place until at least April of next year. Once again this government is letting down parents of special needs parents.”
Based on that feedback, the province is expanding the scope of the autism expert panel to provide advice on what a sustainable, needs-based autism program would look like. “To facilitate that,” noted the release, “Ontario is extending existing behaviour plans and continuing to bring children off the waitlist to ensure continuity of service for families.”
The new mandate for the Autism Advisory Panel is to develop recommendations for a new, needs-based and sustainable Ontario Autism Program with the goal of helping as many children as possible, notes the release. “The panel is examining results from online surveys, telephone town halls and written submissions as well as considering relevant evidence, science and data and will submit its advice by the end of summer.”
According to the release, this means families will continue receiving services outlined in their current Ontario Autism Program Behaviour Plan until its end date. Families will then be able to renew their plan for a second extension of up to six months at their current level of intensity, or less where clinically appropriate. The release goes on to assert that “there will be no gaps in service.”
For children not in service, childhood budgets will continue to be issued to families as the province works towards a needs-based program.
The province has previously announced that it is “investing an additional $278 million in the province’s autism program, bringing the total amount of funding to $600 million annually.”
“I have every confidence that together, we will get this right. It’s clear we need to ask the advisory panel to provide us with a broader set of recommendations and advice and we need to give them the necessary time to do so,” said Minister Smith. “In the interim, we will continue services for families, move more children into service and give our experts the time they need to bring forth their considered recommendations. These measures will also bring greater transparency for parents and families across Ontario.”
“The advisory panel’s expert advice will be critical to ensuring our investments across government, including in Ontario’s health care system, promote and advance a truly child-centred approach,” continued Christine Elliott, deputy premier and minister of Health in the release. “I look forward to receiving their recommendation. In the meantime, we are continuing to listen to families of children and youth with autism and remain fully committed to supporting them through enhanced supports.”
“Our government is committed to ensuring Ontario schools are safe and inclusive places for students with autism,” said Stephen Lecce, minister of Education. “We will work tirelessly with Ontario families, educators and school boards to achieve seamless transition for children and enhance school-based supports.”
The province’s 20-member autism expert panel includes parents of children with autism, clinicians, autism self-advocates, service providers, former public servants and others.