The Manitoba government is spending $622,000 on a new parent support service at St. Amant that will help families with autistic children, officials announced on Wednesday as part of World Autism Awareness Day.

The money will go towards the project, which will support families in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba with assessment-based programming, consultation and learning opportunities.

“We are introducing more workshops for parents because we know that many parents today are finding out about a diagnosis and then looking for information,” said St. Amant president and CEO John Leggat.

Representatives of the local not-for-profit said it will be launching a pilot project extending supports to parents of children with developmental disabilities on waiting lists for services.

As part of the parent support service, which will be based on the principles of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy, a St. Amant autism consultant will assess children and prepare learning plans that parents can carry out at home.

Families can also attend workshops on understanding autism and teaching strategies, in order to help them teach new skills to their children.

The local not-for-profit will be launching a website in the coming weeks designed to help those providing care for someone with autism.

“Offering workshops provides an opportunity for the family to get the information in a timely way from experts, and at the same time have the ability to interact with other parents and families who are going through similar situations,” said Leggat.

Last year, St. Amant provided tutoring and other resources for 193 children with autism. The organization has dealt with an overwhelming need for programming for autistic children.

Families that need access to ABA therapy for their children were faced with a one-and-a-half year waiting list as of last year.

The wait is especially troubling because ABA therapy is a time-sensitive intervention for children with autism.

Province hiring more specialists

The provincial government also announced on Wednesday that it will spend spend $123,000 to hire two more autism early intervention specialists.

The two specialists will serve about 30 more families with preschool children with autism spectrum disorders in the Eastman and Parkland regions, as well as in the north.

That will bring the number of autism specialists in rural Manitoba to five, including two that were hired last year for the Westman and Interlake regions.

"Timely, early intervention services for children with [autism spectrum disorders] are very important and we remain committed to building a range of services to meet families' needs," Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said in a release.

"These increased investments will help families of children with autism spectrum disorders by improving access to programming, education and support provided by experts in the field."

Early diagnosis getting better

Tuesday marked World Autism Awareness Day, with events taking place across the world, including in Manitoba.

The rate of autism is up 120 per cent over the past 10 years, according to the Autism Society of Canada.

In 2002, one in every 150 kids was diagnosed with autism. Now, those numbers are one in every 68 kids.

World Autism Awareness Day

Signey (left), Jorja (middle) and mom Jackie Gagnon look at a book together on World Autism Awareness Day. (Chris Glover/CBC)

Researchers in Manitoba say the definition of autism is now wider and doctors are getting better at diagnosing.

Jackie Gagnon’s five-year-old daughter Signey was diagnosed at age three.

“It’s devastating because you have an idea of what your child’s life is going to be like, and then when you hear that they are going to be challenged, everything just kind of falls apart on top of you,” she said. “You don’t even know where to begin.”

Now, Signey is five years old, and her mom says she’s seen improvement in her daughter since she was four.

“[She] put her hands on my face and absolutely it was the first time she’d ever really looked at me, like actually saw me,” said Gagnon.