TORONTO — Ontario’s autism program should focus on early intervention but also include funding caps on services for children and youth to ensure it survives into the future, an expert panel recommended Wednesday.

The province’s Progressive Conservative government went back to the drawing board earlier this year after its original plan for autism services sparked waves of protests. One of the most contentious aspects of that plan was a services funding cap at amounts families said were far too low to provide any meaningful amounts of therapy.

Panelists reluctantly included annual limits on the amount of service kids could receive in their report, describing those limits as unavoidable for the foreseeable future and calling them necessary to ensure the province’s autism program remains sustainable.

“We struggled with that,” said Laura Kirby-McIntosh, the president of the Ontario Autism Coalition who sat on the panel.

The caps envisioned by the panel would be a far cry from the previous, income-based maximum of $20,000 a year for kids under six and $5,000 per year until they were 18. But the panel recommended that the exact amounts should be determined later by an implementation committee and by a child’s care providers, Kirby-McIntosh said.

“What they gave was sub-clinical therapy amounts to everybody,” she said. “This puts the clinicians in the driver’s seat.”

Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith said the panel’s recommendations will provide a “strong foundation” for the new program. He has already promised the government’s next effort will be based on the needs of children and their families, but said he requires time to review the report before finalizing the program’s details.

“Every government over the last 30 years really have not quite landed in the right place when it comes to autism and that includes our government,” Smith said. “One of the commitments that we made was, let’s work directly with the community.”

The panel, which included parents, autistic adults, psychologists and behavioural analysts, recommends some time-limited early intervention for kids under six when they register for aid. Currently, children wait months or potentially years to qualify for full core services.

Smith said the early years are key, and that proposal is something that the government could enact quickly.

Lisa MacLeod, the previous minister responsible for the autism portfolio, was demoted after a disastrous roll-out of the government’s initial plan earlier this year. Members  of the autism community said Smith has helped the relationship turn a corner.

This report by the Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2019.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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