The Ontario government will move ahead with recommendations from its autism expert panel with the first phase in place by next April and the rest by 2021, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith announced Tuesday.
“This has not been an easy journey for families or service providers,” he said at Queen’s Park.
In late October, the provincially appointed expert panel looking at how to revamp Ontario’s controversial changes to the autism program recommended the government ensure students get the services they need without lengthy wait times regardless of their age.
The panel also said families should receive funding for behavioural programs as well as other services such as occupational therapy, though not physiotherapy. The experts also said that children waiting for services should receive some kind of support.
Smith has said he wants to implement the panel’s 100-plus recommendations and have a new program in place by April 2020.
The province originally wanted to provide childhood budgets based on a family’s income and limits based on a child’s age, which the government says it will scrap.
The panel recommended some limits to remain within the $600 million in annual funding — double what the previous government was spending.
If the panel’s recommendations are fully implemented, sources predicted Ontario would have the most robust autism treatment program in the country.
Parents will still be able to choose from among the therapies and services available.
The Ford government has come under considerable criticism for its handling of the autism file, with massive protests by families including one last March at Queen’s Park.
The expert panel was appointed by former social services minister Lisa MacLeod last spring after parent outrage over the province’s plan to clear a therapy wait list of 23,000 children by setting annual “childhood budgets” of $20,000 for kids up to age six and $5,000 for older children until age 18.
Despite the government’s subsequent pledge to double annual autism program funding to $600 million, critics charged that children with severe challenges often require treatment that costs as much as $80,000 a year and that only needs-based funding would address the shortfall.
Smith replaced MacLeod in last June’s cabinet shuffle.
He has said It was “clear to me that we didn’t get the redesign right the first time.”
Just last week, parents from northwestern Ontario came to Queen’s Park to say their children are languishing without treatment, and that next April is far too long for them to wait.
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“What more is it going to take to get this government’s attention?” New Democrat MPP Monique Taylor (Hamilton Mountain) said at a news conference with the families.
Smith said his ministry is “continuing to work very hard on this … we want to get going on this … We’ll want to make sure we are in the right place, at the right time.”