Province to tweak autism funding overhaul under intense pressure

Province to tweak autism funding overhaul under intense pressure

The Ontario government says it will look at moving to a system of needs-based funding for children with autism — and eliminate means-testing for services — after facing intense pressure from families of children with autism.

Funding levels remain the same but parents will be able to spend the money on more services such as speech therapy and physiotherapy.

Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod is defending the government’s changes in the face of a planned Thursday protest.
Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod is defending the government’s changes in the face of a planned Thursday protest.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star file photo)

From the day changes to the autism system were announced in early February, autism advocates have warned it would have drastic consequences for families who would no longer be able to afford behavioural therapy. A huge protest was held at Queen’s Park before the March Break.

Last week, autism advocates and experts spoke at Queen’s Park, urging the Ford government to put its plans on hold, and come up with a system that will better serve families — something they said could be done without costing the government any additional funds.

The government had budgeted $321 million for autism services for the next fiscal year.

The new system, which comes into effect April 1, is meant to clear a 23,000-child wait-list and distribute funding to more families, MacLeod has said.

Families will be eligible for up to $20,000 a year for each child under 6, to a lifetime maximum of $140,000, and can be used for a number of different services of their choosing. Children older than that can access up to $5,000 a year up to age 18, to a lifetime maximum of $55,000.

However, for children with intense needs, therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year.

Funds are allocated based on income, with higher-income earners ineligible.

“Our reforms to the Ontario Autism Program were developed with a belief that all families of children with autism deserve support from their Ontario government,” a spokesperson for MacLeod has said.

MacLeod has said three out of four children with autism were languishing without services when she took office, calling that “unconscionable.”

But critics have said the plan should be based on need, not age or family income, and is not nearly enough to cover the type of intensive therapy some children require.

“This is done correctly in many jurisdictions, for a fraction of the cost,” behavioural therapist Louis Busch, has said.

(In Missouri, where health insurance companies must cover autism services, families can claim up to the equivalent of about $61,000 per year for a child, with the annual average being less than $6,700.)

In the wake of the upheaval, layoff notices have started to go out to behavioural therapists across the province as service providers deal with uncertainty under the new program. And at least one community college has suspended its Autism Behavioural Science program, in part, due to the changes.

Laura Kirby-McIntosh of the Ontario Autism Coalition has been among those calling for the government to hold off on the changes.

School boards had been expecting an influx of about 1,000 students with autism into schools as families lose funding and turn to local schools for help.

Boards across the province have expressed concerns about having enough money and resources to support them.

Meanwhile, municipalities have started to weigh in as local residents express their concern. On Tuesday evening, Bradford West Gwillimbury Town Council passed a resolution to request MacLeod to suspend planned changes “pending meaningful consultations” with parents, therapists and others impacted by the overhaul. The town, which falls within the provincial riding of York-Simcoe is a longtime Progressive Conservative stronghold and is currently represented by Attorney General Caroline Mulroney.

During question period on Tuesday, MacLeod said that “the last month has been very emotionally charged for many people across the province. We’re going to make sure that where we can make some enhancements, we’ll do that.”

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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