More school boards and therapy providers are voicing their concerns over the province’s changes to the autism system, as upset parents plan a mass protest Thursday at Queen’s Park.
The York Region District School Board is the latest to write to the province, saying an expected influx of students with autism — who will lose their current level of service — along with a provincial directive to freeze hiring, “presents some obvious and consequential challenges in providing essential services for children about to undertake a significant transition.”
The letter, from Chair Corrie McBain to Education Minister Lisa Thompson and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, also says the board has received no information about the number of children to expect, “making it difficult to prepare for the increase in enrolment and attendance and ensure we have the resources in place.
“… In light of these difficulties, we are requesting that the government reconsider its implementation plan to ensure that children are not adversely affected by these changes.”
And a day after autism service provider Kinark spoke out about the changes, Surrey Place and Thames Valley Children’s Centre also say their input was not reflected in the Ford government’s plan that will provide autism services to more children, but leave many families with far less service than they currently receive.
MacLeod said the government’s priority is to clear the 23,000-long wait list in the next 18 months, creating a system where families can choose the services they want.
They’ll be eligible for up to $20,000 a year for children under 6 — with a lifetime maximum of $140,000. Children older than that can access up to $5,000 a year up to age 18, to a lifetime maximum of $55,000.
However, children, with severe needs can require up to $80,000 a year in therapy.
When asked by New Democrat MPP Monique Taylor about the calls to hold off on the changes, MacLeod said “of course, there is a diversity of opinions, whether it’s parents, whether it is service providers, whether it’s those who have lived experience with autism.
“But I will tell you, the opinion of this government is that we are going to clear the wait-list of 23,000 children, or three out of four children in Ontario.”
She later told reporters that she and her aides would be avoiding the protest Thursday due to concerns about their personal safety.
“We’ve had some credible threats so we’re going to make sure that’s foremost for me and my team,” MacLeod said. “We’re always happy to meet with people, but (Thursday’s) focus will be on, obviously, attending question period. We certainly respect people who want to protest peacefully.”
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, a parent advocacy group, has been working with therapists and other supporters on the rally since the day the autism program changes were announced.
“Ford promised us that under his government we would never have to go back onto the lawn of Queen’s Park (to protest.) He said he would be with us 1,000 per cent,” Kirby-McIntosh said. “He lied. He has completely abandoned us. The betrayal is phenomenal.”
She said a donation of 11 motor coaches will bring parents and supporters from all around the province — like Ottawa, Sudbury, Windsor.
Meanwhile, parents are remortgaging their homes, borrowing from family and even launching GoFundMe campaigns to pay for ABA therapy in light of the cuts.
As for schools, Thompson, speaking to reporters Wednesday at Queen’s Park, said her ministry is working with boards to help with the transition to the new system come April 1, when an influx of students into the public system is expected given the new funding scheme will see many families unable to continue to afford behavioural therapies.
With files from Robert Benzie
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb