Critics of Ontario's autism program laud change but want more movement

The province has announced reforms to the Ontario Autism Program. One teacher says it's a good first step, but it would be better for the province to offer money to help families access more therapy options. One man even quit his job at MPP Amy Fee's office over the changes.

Funding to help families access more therapy options would be better, teacher says

Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Amy Fee talked about her personal family experiences of having two children with autism during an announcement Wednesday, in which the province announced changes to the Ontario Autism Program. (Twitter)

The province's changes to the Ontario Autism Program are welcome, but local advocates say it's just a starting point and more can be done.

Janet Greener is a teacher at Spectrum Academy, which is located at at St. Jude's Scholar's Hall in Kitchener.

"I'm happy to see that more children will be able to access funding and families will be able to be helped sooner. That's definitely a positive," she said.

"I have a concern that the funding will continue to be limited to ... applied behaviour analysis, which is the evidence-based programming that the government has funded in the past," she added.

"Over my career, there have been numerous therapies and programs that I've witnesses, participated in and taught that can be as much, even more beneficial, to families and the success of the children."

She's not the only one concerned. Bruce McIntosh is the former head of the Ontario Autism Coalition, who started working for Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Amy Fee after last spring's election. He quit his job Wednesday after the announcement.

He called the province's plans "absolutely wrongheaded."

The funding "doesn't come close," to what families require, said McIntosh, calling needs-based funding "absolutely critical."

'How much longer am I going to be here?'

Guelph MPP and Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner says he's concerned Wednesday's announcement "will not be a permanent solution to the waitlist challenges families face."

But Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Amy Fee disagrees. She's the parliamentary assistant to the minister of children, community and social services with a focus on autism.

"As a parent, we have two children with autism and we have sat on so many wait lists and just desperately waiting for help and wondering where do I turn next? How much longer am I going to be here?" Fee said.

She says her government's plan will clear the wait list for treatment services in 18 months and also eliminate the wait list for a diagnosis, which currently takes up to 31 weeks.

"The way the system was left by the Liberals, it was leaving 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," she said, adding the fear was children would age out of the system and never receive treatment.

She says the plan looks forward to create a sustainable future for the program.

Let parents decide therapy

Fee says she heard from parents at roundtables held across the province, including at KidsAbility in the region. At each stop, she says parents were emotional as they described their struggles.

"Lots of tears, lots of emotion. These families are struggling," she said.

Ontario Autism Coalition president Laura Kirby-McIntosh, who is Bruce McIntosh's wife, told CBC News families struggle to pay for treatment because intensive autism therapy can cost between $50,000 and $70,000 a year.

Greener says treatment is not one size fits all for children and needs can change over time. The funding for families should allow for flexibility.

Some children might need speech therapy, she explains, while others may not. Some need help with academics while others need help for social situations. Others benefit greatly from sibling interaction programs, she said.

She says parents should be allowed to decide what therapy is the right fit for their child.

"If parents who know their children best were able to plan and dictate the therapies and the help that their children need, I think it would benefit not only their children, but the entire family as a whole," she said.

"It needs to be a whole family network sort of thing and let the parents take back control."

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