Toronto

Ontario to consult parents of children with autism following months of controversy

Minister Lisa MacLeod, flanked by 2 other ministers, says move is 'an important listening exercise'

Posted: April 02, 2019
Last Updated: April 02, 2019

'We have heard from parents and we want to take the time to listen very carefully to their best advice on a needs-based system,' says Lisa MacLeod, minister of children, community and social services. (CBC)

Ontario will consult parents of children with autism starting on May 1 after months of controversy over changes to the government's original program.

The announcement comes on World Autism Awareness Day and a day after changes that the government made to its autism program came into effect. It also follows a backlash over those changes.

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Lisa MacLeod, minister of children, community and social services, told reporters in Toronto that the consultations will help inform the government on ways it can better support children and teenagers with autism who have complex needs. 

She called it an "important listening exercise."

MacLeod was flanked by Health Minister Christine Elliott on her right and Education Minister Lisa Thompson on her left as she made the announcement on Tuesday at Toronto's Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

Lisa MacLeod, minister of children, community and social services, middle, is flanked by Health Minister Christine Elliott, left, and Education Minister Lisa Thompson, right, as she announces that the Ontario government will begin consultations with parents of children with autism starting on May 1. (CBC)

The consultations, which will last a month, will be conducted through an online survey, telephone town halls and roundtables held by MPPs in their constituencies. She invited all MPPs, not only Progressive Conservatives, to hold the roundtables.

'We have heard from parents'

MacLeod said additional needs-based supports for children with complex needs could include more direct funding.

"We have heard from parents and we want to take the time to listen very carefully to their best advice on a needs-based system," she said.

"Today, we are indicating we will take a long, hard look at this, and as part of our consultations, we will seek input and advice on how to best integrate these additional supports in the health care and education system to better support Ontario families."

MacLeod said the government is setting up a new advisory panel that will be made up of parents with lived experience, adults with autism and experts in such fields as psychology, behavioural analysis, rehabilitation services, education, developmental pediatrics and research.

The panel will review the results of the survey, telephone town halls and roundtables and give advice on a new "needs assessment" process.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson, left, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, middle, and Health Minister Christine Elliott, right, listen to questions from reporters. (CBC)

Asked how the government will work to restore trust with parents of children with autism, MacLeod said: "Our motivation has always been to ensure that every child that has autism in the province of Ontario receives support from their Ontario government. Our motivation on that has always been pure." 

"We've been given a great deal more flexibility to enhance this program, up to doubling the program. And right now, we're listening to people."

Province faced sustained protests by parents

The original Ontario Autism Program announced in February capped 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.

Parents said those amounts were woefully inadequate for kids with severe needs, whose therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year.

Faced with sustained protests by parents, MacLeod announced changes to the program, including eliminating an income testing aspect to the funding.

She said the new program, which takes needs-based supports into account, could cost up to double the original $321-million budget.

Autism Ontario has been asked to help the minister conduct the online survey and will review questions asked of parents, she added.

With files from The Canadian Press