The Ford government is launching an online survey and a series of telephone town halls in May as part of promised public consultations on its controversial overhaul of provincial autism services.
MPPs from all parties are also being invited to hold town halls to hear from parents, educators, clinicians and others, said Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services.
Results of the consultation will be reviewed by a new advisory panel that will help the government develop a “needs assessment process,” to better serve children and youth with autism who have complex challenges, MacLeod told reporters at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Tuesday morning.
The panel, made up of parents, autistic adults and experts in psychology, behavioural analysis, rehabilitation, education, developmental pediatrics and research, will report to the government this summer, MacLeod said.
The ministries of health and education will also be involved in what MacLeod called the first-ever “whole of government approach” to autism services in Ontario
“We have been listening to families and have heard the concerns they want addressed,” she said. “We want to address them. . . by providing additional sources of support.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott and Education Minister Lisa Thompson also pledged their ministries’ suport for the consultations.
“We also want to look more broadly at how we can reduce barriers for children with autism,” Elliott said. However, she said she is not contemplating the inclusion of autism therapy under OHIP “at this time.”
MacLeod announced tweaks to sweeping autism program changes two weeks ago after more than a month of parent protests and push-back from school boards ill-prepared to support children with autism in the classroom.
The provincial overhaul, introduced in February, is aimed at eliminating a therapy wait list of 23,000 kids and giving parents more say over how they spend provincial autism funding.
Under the revamp, which took effect April 1, families will receive “childhood budgets” of $20,000 a year up to a lifetime maximum of $140,000 for children under age 6, and $5,000 a year for those between age 6 and 18 to a maximum of $55,000.
However, therapy can cost as much as $80,000 a year for children with severe needs, leaving many families scrambling.
Despite MacLeod’s decision to double provincial funding to $500 million a year, to extend existing funding for six months and eliminate income-testing, critics say the changes still mean eventual cuts for those receiving services and insufficient funds for those coming off the wait list.
Although school boards welcomed the six-month funding extension, teacher unions are still predicting chaos in the classroom as children with autism arrive next fall without necessary therapy and support.
MacLeod said her ministry will work the ministries of education and health to expand services for “better wraparound” support and to ensure services are in place by the time the six-month funding extension is up.
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb