TORONTO — Ontario will establish a needs-based program for autistic children, the government said Monday, firmly reversing course on a revamp that drew months of backlash from parents earlier this year.
Social Services Minister Todd Smith made the commitment while apologizing for the earlier version of the program, which based funding solely on age and family income.
Smith, who took on the portfolio following a cabinet shuffle last month, spent the past few weeks meeting with parents and service providers and said the original program was the wrong move.
“Our government is committed to building a needs-based Ontario Autism Program,” he said. “Not just a needs-based component, a needs-based program. This clear new direction stems from expert advice we’ve received from service providers and the lived experiences shared by families with autism.”
In February, the Progressive Conservatives announced that a new program would cap the amounts families could receive at $20,000 a year for kids under six, with funding dropping to $5,000 per year until they were 18. The maximum amounts were only available to families earning less than $55,000 a year and parents said that was woefully inadequate for kids with severe needs.
The revamp was met with outrage from parents with autistic children, sparking angry protests inside and outside of Ontario’s legislature. Smith’s predecessor, Lisa MacLeod, then announced in March that she would eliminate the income testing aspect of the program and look at how to add needs-based supports.
Smith said Monday that he has been working to rebuild trust between the government and families of autistic children.
“I fully understand the anxiety … that parents have gone through over the last year,” he said. “We are certainly sorry for the anxiety that this has caused parents.”
The government has asked an expert panel — made up of parents, clinicians and service providers — to now provide advice by the end of the summer on what a needs-based program would look like within the program’s existing funding envelope of $600 million.
The government will also extend, now for the second time, services to families currently receiving funds through the Ontario Autism Program Behavioural Plan until the new program is in place by April 2020. The Progressive Conservatives gave the program its first six-month extension in March.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a member of the expert panel, called Smith’s announcement a good first step but questioned why it took so long for the government to change course.
“It didn’t have to be like this,” she said. “Our families just lost a year basically … but a year in a child’s life, developmentally, is an eternity.”
Kirby-McIntosh said one of the most frustrating elements of the dispute was that parents had fought alongside many Tory legislators while the politicians had been in opposition to keep the previous Liberal government from instituting an age-based autism service cutoff in 2006.
“The Conservatives … came to our protests,” she said. “They used our kids as photo ops. They knew what they needed to do on this program and they just didn’t do it.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the government has finally admitted it needs to completely re-think the autism program.
“This government created additional chaos and doing a six-month extension isn’t going to fully alleviate the anxiety parents feel,” he said.
NDP critic for children and youth Monique Taylor said the government’s timeline to establish the new program in April 2020 is far too long.
“Kids and families simply cannot wait for April 2020 to get the services they need,” she said in a statement. “Literally every day, the developmental potential of children with autism is slipping away.”
Liberal legislator Michael Coteau, who under the last government served as social services minister, said Premier Doug Ford should apologize directly to families.
“The frustration, anxiety and hurt brought about by this government’s hostile and insensitive treatment of parents and children with autism over the past year will not be forgotten,” he said in a statement.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press