Kitchener-Waterloo

KidsAbility faces 'complete seismic shift' with changes to autism program

KidsAbility, which offers various health and therapy programs to families in Waterloo region, Wellington county and Guelph, will lose 20 per cent of its base budget after the province announced changes to the Ontario Autism Program.

'For our staff, this is a very, very difficult day,' KidsAbility CEO says

In August, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod (holding the butterfly painting) visited KidsAbility along with other local politicians, including Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Amy Fee (far right). Changes announced by MacLeod and Fee on Wednesday to the Ontario Autism Program will have major impacts for KidsAbility, CEO Linda Kenny says. (KidsAbility/Facebook)

The way KidsAbility offers autism treatment services will change completely now that the province has modified the Ontario Autism Program, the organization's CEO says.

"For KidsAbility, that will actually represent a completely different way that we will do business in autism," KidsAbility CEO Linda Kenny told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

"This is a complete seismic shift for us in terms of how we deliver service and how our staff interacts with families."

The provincial government announced on Wednesday it will be shifting the funding for autism to give families more money to seek out treatment.

KidsAbility offers a number of services to families in Waterloo region, Wellington county and Guelph, including programs for speech, hearing, blindness or low vision, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, physiotherapy, orthotics and autism. The programs don't cost families anything and are paid for by the province and the KidsAbility Foundation.

Kenny says the changes to the autism program will mean the organization will lose about 20 per cent of its base funding from the government and will need to move into a financial model where they'll have to compete with private companies to offer autism services.

System kept families waiting

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod and Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Amy Fee made the government announcement Wednesday. Funding will now be given to families based on the age of their child and the family's income.

Fee, who herself has two children with autism, says getting off wait lists and getting a diagnosis is critical for families.

The previous system left "children sitting on that list indefinitely. We could not actually tell a family how much longer their child was going to have to wait to enter service," Fee said in an interview with Craig Norris on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition.

Fee said she held roundtables across the province, including one at KidsAbility, where she heard from frustrated parents.

"Every round table we had, parents who would be so emotional, who would struggle to get through telling me what was going on in their family situation. Lots of tears. Lots of emotion. These families are struggling," Fee said.

Money spread too thin?

There are about 1,500 families on the wait list for autism services in Waterloo region and Wellington county. Kenny says she applauds the province for wanting to shrink those numbers, but she's concerned about the method.

"We do worry that the funding will be spread so thinly that it would make us wonder what possible good clinical outcomes we'll be able to achieve with families," she said.

Kenny says staff spent much of Thursday answering questions from families who aren't sure what this will mean for them. She says they were only recently briefed on the government's plans for the change to the program, and they still have questions, too.

"We going to keep doing what we do for families today, tomorrow and the next day and we will work with whatever the transition plan will be to assist families to transition to the new model. But for the time being, we're still operating as business as usual," she said, noting the new funding model is set to take effect at the beginning of April.

Change 'removed choice' for families

But Kenny acknowledges not knowing exactly how this will affect the work they do has been felt by those who work with the families.

"For our staff, this is a very, very difficult day. They come to work every day wanting to make a difference for families," Kenny said.

"They're worried about the services they deliver to families and the families they work with."

Kenny says she's also worried about the impact it will have on families who need their service.

"The best system that supports kids with autism and their families is a continuum of service that allows family choice, but I feel like with this movement towards a complete private delivery of autism services, it has removed choice for many families who actually rely on the services that are delivered by organizations such as ours." 

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