British Columbia

Parents decry cuts to B.C. autism program

Parents say Autism Funding B.C. has been rejecting their applications for funding for a therapy program in Coquitlam. The Empowered Steps Movement Therapy program had previously been funded for the past 12 years.

'Many of us are already stretched very thin,' says mother of 4-year-old

Four-year-old Eli Gooding is among a group of B.C. families affected by funding cuts to a physical therapy program in Coquitlam for children with autism. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Parents say they're frustrated over the sudden loss of provincial funding for a Coquitlam program for children with autism.

For the past 12 years, a provincial agency called Autism Funding has covered the costs for parents of kids with autism who enrol their kids in movement therapy in the Coquitlam program, held at a local gymnastics club.

The agency, funded by the Ministry of Children and Family Development, allows families to quality for up to $22,000 a year per child to help pay for autism intervention services.

However, for the last few months, parents say their applications for funding for the Coquitlam program have been rejected.

"I'm very anxious because this has probably been one of the most effective therapies for my son," said Rebecca Gooding.

Her four-year-old son, Eli, was diagnosed with autism over a year ago and he has attended one-on-one has sessions with a therapist at the Coquitlam program ever since.

Program supervisors say they can see results in children's motor skills development in weekly 30-minute gymnastics sessions. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"Last year he was scared to even step on a scooter and now he's just super excited to try new things," she said.

"He's willing to try harder things because he's worked on it here. He knows it's a little bit safer and he has more confidence."

During half-hour sessions, a therapist takes Eli through different gymnastic activities like walking on a balance beam and swinging from a low bar, all designed to develop motor skills. The sessions cost $115 an hour and can be split into shorter 30- or 45-minute sessions.

The program, called Empowering Steps Movement Therapy, bills the province for its programs that it offers to children under age six. In turn, each year parents send a request to Autism Funding, requesting that the agency pay for their child's therapy.

Rebecca Gooding says the Empowering Steps Movement Therapy program has improved her son Eli's motor skills and confidence. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Program supervisor Alison Davidson said it typically takes four to six weeks for requests to be approved.

"We've never had any issues until recently," she said.

Since January, she says, requests to Autism Funding from parents with children under six have almost all been rejected, meaning parents are now on the hook for hundreds of dollars in payments.

Davidson says they've emailed the parents of the more than 30 kids affected to warn them.

Funding halted

The Ministry of Children and Family Development says it stopped funding the Coquitlam program because it wasn't included on a list of autism providers approved by the government.

The province did not explain why it's taken 12 years for it to notice the issue.

In a statement, it said families already approved for funding for the Coquitlam program can continue until the end of this funding year. However, future requests will be only be approved if the program meets all of Autism Funding's requirements.

The ministry added that families can still access $22,000 in funding for eligible autism intervention services including with behaviour consultants, occupational and physical therapists, speech pathologists or behaviour interventionists.

Meanwhile, parents worry about how the loss of funding will affect their child's therapy program.

"We might be able to pay for some out of pocket, but that's a huge burden on families and many of us are already stretched very thin," said Gooding.

Without funding, the weekly sessions at the Coquitlam club will cost her more than $300 a month.

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