Marie-Claude Blais

Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Marie-Claude Blais says if children miss autism service appointments for medical reasons they will not lose any intervention hours. (Government of New Brunswick)

The minister of Education and Early Childhood Development says pre-school children with autism will not have their intervention services cut for missing appointments, as long as they have a good reason for missing them.

Marie-Claude Blais was responding to concerns raised by parents about the provincial government's new policy, which sets a mandatory 95 per cent attendance rate.

Under the policy, slated to take effect on July 1, if a child misses more than three days of intervention services during a three-month period, the agency supplying the service will lose funding.

Some parents have argued against the policy, saying children sometimes have to miss appointments due to illness and other family commitments.

But Blais says parents should not be worried.

"We've been very clear that there's different reasons children miss appointments. If it's for medical reasons, you can certainly be sure that the children will not lose any intervention hours," she told CBC's Information Morning Saint John on Friday.

"What is important is that our partners … the agencies, the stakeholders we work with, deliver services directly to the children. We want children to receive more intervention hours, not less."

Children receiving autism services are currently entitled to 20 hours of direct intervention per week.

Liberal education critic Chris Collins has called for an immediate halt to the pending changes to services, saying there has been inadequate consultation with the affected families.

The new standards were announced on May 26, less than one week before the initial implementation date of June 1, he said.

And although the implementation date has since been bumped back to July 1, the government still has not provided adequate consultation, said Collins, calling it "unacceptable."

Collins says he has received calls from concerned parents.

“Autism support agencies already experience high staff turnover rates. This new policy’s impact on agency funding will certainly make staff retention more difficult,” Collins said in a statement. “While this impacts the autism support agencies, it also certainly impacts the children," he said.

“Routine, consistency, and familiarity are all extremely important for a child with autism. These changes are causing an undue amount of uncertainty and stress for both these children and their parents," he said.

"At the end of the day, parents must be involved in the decisions that will impact their child.”

Blais dismissed Collins's complaint about a lack of consultation.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy has also criticized the changes, which include cuts to funding for training new agency employees, human resources services, instructors teaching group classes, and staff preparation time.

Cardy contends the cuts are short-sighted and will end up costing the province more in the long-run.

“Autism interventions before age five are most effective, save money long term and most importantly give 
kids the best chance at a full and rewarding life,” Cardy said in a statement last week.

The provincial government budgets $13.6 million annually for autism services, Blais said.