Officials admit to 'gaps' but promise better autism programs, services soon

The mother of a nine-year-old boy with autism heard officials tell a legislature committee Wednesday that there are gaps in the system designed to help her son Callum and others, but filling those gaps is a "high priority."

'Everyone did what they could. It was not enough,' says mother of 9-year-old with autism

Carly Sutherland's nine-year-old son Callum is severely impacted by autism. She and other parents who have children with autism sat in the public gallery above the legislative chamber Wednesday. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Carly Sutherland didn't need a legislature committee hearing to confirm that there are gaps in the system designed to help people with autism spectrum disorder.

Her family lived through that scarcity of resources last winter when their nine-year-old son Callum needed urgent help. She and her husband eventually took their struggle to the media.

On Wednesday, she and other parents who have children with autism sat in the public gallery above the legislative chamber looking down as senior officials from three government departments as well as the IWK Health Centre testified about the services and programs offered by the province to help them.

"I came here today because I wanted to leave with the hope that another family wouldn't go through what we went through this year," Sutherland told reporters after the two-hour meeting. "And I can't say unequivocally that I feel that to be true."

On Wednesday senior officials from three government departments, as well as the IWK Health Centre testified about the services and programs offered by the province to help them. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

That's because some of the top bureaucrats responsible for delivering those programs and services admitted the province needs to do better.

"The demand for services has increased significantly," she told the committee. "Over the past decade we've seen the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder almost double."

She said that was due to "broader diagnosis and greater awareness."

Lynn Hartwell is the deputy minister of Community Services. (CBC)

Her colleague Lynn Hartwell at Community Services, which is responsible for respite care, said the system isn't flexible enough to respond to the highly individual needs some families face.

"We have a lot of resources that are currently in our system supporting children and families," she said. "They may not be where they need to be, again, to have a more nimble response."

Proper diagnosis takes time

Dr. Andrew Lynk, chief of pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre, told the committee getting a proper diagnosis can take up to two years.

"Can we do better, especially in school-aged and young adult? No question that's a gap," he said. "The wait times are too long now for school-aged, for sure."

'Very limited resources'

Joe Rudderham, responsible for disability support programs at Nova Scotia's Department of Community Services, said families in greatest need are his priority.

"What we need to make sure is that we actually allocate very, very limited resources to families that need it the most," he said. 

All said they were working together to come up with a better system and promised better services and programs, soon.

"It's as soon as possible," said Perret. "It's not a light switch that you turn on. We're putting foundational pieces in place, we're co-ordinating our team members more closely and hopefully building the system over time, but I hope it's a short time."