Kitchener-Waterloo

More changes to Ontario's autism program not good enough for families in Waterloo region: Lindo

Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo says more changes to the Ontario Autism Program announced Thursday by the provincial government don't go far enough to help families in Waterloo region.

'I am very happy with this program,' MPP Amy Fee says, defending the changes

Neetu Mehan attended a small protest in Cambridge when Premier Doug Ford held a press conference on March 13. She says her 11-year-old son has benefited from the former funding and she wants other children to be able to do the same. Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo says she credits parents for the changes to the autism program announced Thursday by the provincial government. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

The provincial government has announced more changes to the Ontario Autism Program, but Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo says they don't go far enough to help families of children with autism in Waterloo region.

Lindo says she hopes the Progressive Conservatives will rethink all the changes they have made to the program before it's set to take effect April 1.

"I'm an eternal optimist. And so I think anything is possible; if we keep the pressure on anything can happen," she said in an interview with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo Thursday afternoon.

"I want the parents to know that as the official opposition, we will keep fighting side-by-side with them until our children that are living on the spectrum, their families, our teachers get what they deserve and this plan is so far from that."

In a previous announcement, the government said it's changing how funding for the program is delivered. Instead of agencies that provide services receiving the funding, now parents will be given money and they can decide where to go for approved therapies.

On Thursday, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod announced all families with a child who has autism will be eligible for provincial funding. Families with a child under six years old will get $20,000 a year with a maximum of $140,000 over the child's life. Once a child turns six, the funding drops to $5,000 each year.

Prior to Thursday's announcement, the funding was to be based on income and families earning more than $250,000 would be ineligible.

The province also added speech language pathology to the list of services that would be funded.

'I am very happy with this program'

Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Amy Fee, who has two children with autism, says she supports the changes announced Thursday and the new program as a whole.

"I am very happy with this program and I am very excited for the children with autism, especially the fact that this is a program that for the first time ever, looks at supporting every child with autism in this province," said Fee, who is also the parliamentary assistant to MacLeod with a focus on autism.

Families of children with autism currently have behaviour plans that outline services until a certain date. Now, those plans will be extended six months beyond the end date, which means families don't need to rush to get their children into school or another program as of April 1.

"Parents were telling us that it was going to be too quick of a transition to change into the new program and they were concerned about things like regression or how the child moves into the school system," Fee said.

"I have been listening to parents. The minister's been listening to parents. Our government has been listening and we want to make sure that we are supporting parents and children with autism and their families as best we can."

Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Amy Fee says she fully supports the changes to the Ontario Autism Program. 'I am very happy with this program and I am very excited for the children with autism,' she said in an interview Thursday. (Twitter)

Parents expressed concerns

Lindo says she and Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife recently held two town halls: one to discuss autism and one to discuss education.

The two topics overlap, she says, and they heard from hundreds of parents concerned about the future of both issues in this province.

"People were so concerned when they were at the town hall about what this was going to mean. They were talking to us about the impact that this hasty announcement had on their kids," Lindo said.

Even allowing an extra six months to transition into the new program doesn't fix the issues parents have, she says.

"What I'm hearing is: why did you put us through this trauma already? Why didn't you do the proper consultations? Why didn't you listen when you were supposed to be listening so that our children are not traumatized?" Lindo said.

"Because really and truly, the students are the ones that are going to lose in this."

'Unrelenting pressure from families'

Lindo says she gives parents full credit for the government making changes to the autism program.

But she said the government is "not fully listening to what it is that people need and that's the thing that I think is the most disturbing."

Guelph MPP and Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner said the Progressive Conservatives need to "take ownership for their flawed autism plan" and also credited parents for speaking out.

"Why did it take unrelenting pressure from families for the government to realize its failure to consult has created chaos for families, schools and service providers?" he said in a release.

He noted the direct-to-family funding model has caused layoffs at service providers, including KidsAbility which serves families in Waterloo region, Guelph and Wellington County.

"The crux of this broken plan is a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores the complex needs of children on [the] spectrum," he said, adding the changes announced Thursday "leave a majority of children out in the cold without the vital therapy they need."

'Seeking answers'

KidsAbility chief executive officer Linda Kenny issued a release Thursday afternoon, saying the impact of the announcement on the agency "is unknown at this time."

"In the coming days, we will be seeking answers to some of the questions that we have regarding implementation plans and timing," she wrote. 

The agency provides a wide range of services to families of children with various health concerns, including speech language therapy, hearing problems, physiotherapy, orthotics and camps along with autism therapy. KidsAbility recently announced it would need to lay off eight autism therapists and one social worker due to the cuts to the Ontario Autism Program.

She said they were pleased with the changes announced Thursday, including the removal of the income testing and the six-month extension to transition into new programs.

"We were encouraged to hear that Minister MacLeod and her office will be consulting with families and service providers over the summer months to find ways to meet the unique and diverse needs of children with a wide range of complex needs," Kenny wrote.

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