Protesters rally against autism changes outside MPP Amy Fee's office

People protested the Ontario Government's changes to autism program supports Friday, by demonstrating outside MPP Amy Fee's constituency office in Kitchener.
Parents with children on the autism spectrum rallied outside PC MPP Amy Fee's office. (Robin DeAngelis/CBC)

Families, therapists and their supporters protested outside Progressive Conservative MPP Amy Fee's Kitchener constituency office on Friday, to show their dissatisfaction with her government's planned changes to the Ontario Autism Program.

Fee is the parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, which oversees the Ontario Autism Program. She's also a parent of two children with autism spectrum disorder. 

According to the province, the program changes will reduce wait times by giving money allotments directly to families. It said there are currently 23,000 children waiting for support, and the government claims that the changes will clear that waiting list within 18 months.

"We needed to look at those 23,000 children that were sitting on the wait list, and we are hearing about families in our office who are happy about the program. Obviously some who are not, but we're hearing as well from families who are saying that they are just grateful to have support coming," Fee told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo minutes before the protest began. 

"My promise to these families is that I would come out and speak with them today and make sure that I do have those stories to bring back and make sure the minister knows what the feeling were that were coming from the people today." 

The new Ontario Autism Program would provide families with autistic children under age six up to $20,000 a year and would allow facilities to decide for themselves how that money would be spent. Children over the age of six will be eligible for $5,000 a year until they turn 18. 

The money is available to families whose household income is less than $250,000 and will be reviewed annually, yet parents of children with autism have said the new Ontario Autism Program is no better than its predecessor.

"The new program essentially ensures she will never get a shot at the therapy that she needs," said Jennifer St. Pierre in a news release on Wednesday. St-Pierre has a five-year-old daughter that she said has been on the waiting list for autism therapy for 22 months.

"The old program was broken, but so is the new one."

Service agencies, who up to now had provided programming and treatment for children with autism, called the new program a "seismic shift" in autism treatment. 

KidsAbility Foundation CEO Linda Kenny said it also means her organization will lose about 20 per cent of its base funding, leaving them with no choice but to compete with private companies that also offer autism services.

The new program takes effect April 1, and Fee said her government's intent is to stick with the Ontario Autism Program as-is, for the next four years. 

Families, therapists and their supporters protested changes to the Ontario Autism Program outside MPP Amy Fee's Kitchener constituency office on Friday. (Robin DeAngelis/CBC)

With files from CBC's Robin DeAngelis


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