Educators, parents worry Ontario autism overhaul will ripple into the classroom

Educators and parents whose children have autism say they're worried that a reduction in home support through the recent overhaul of Ontario's autism program could spill into the classroom.

With less support at home, schools will likely see a difference in the classroom, says educator

Some educators say that, with money spread so thin under the overhaul to Ontario's autism program, schools will be unable to support children with autism because they'll likely receive less treatment at home. (Shutterstock)

Educators and parents whose children have autism say they're worried that a reduction in home support through the recent overhaul of Ontario's autism program could spill into the classroom.

Upset parents have packed the public gallery at Queen's Park in the last week to voice their opposition to the recent changes, saying the new system doesn't work for many families with children on the spectrum. 

Under the changes, which come into effect on April 1, families whose children have autism will receive a budget in order to choose the services they want. Children under six are eligible for up to $20,000 a year, to a maximum of $140,000. Children over six get up to $5,000 a year up to the age of 18, with a maximum of $55,000. 

However, only families who earn less than $55,000 a year will qualify for the full amounts. 

The changes have some families girding themselves for less government support this spring since intensive therapy for a child with severe autism can cost upwards of $80,000 a year. 

Progressive Conservative Social Services Minister Lisa McCleod has defended the changes, noting Ontario is spending more than ever before on the autism system. 

With new investments in diagnostic hubs, the PCs are spending $321 million, up from the $256 million spent under the previous Liberal government. McCleod has also promised to clear the backlog of kids waiting for treatment, a list that is currently 23,000 names long. 

Christine Julien, seen here at a women's march in London's Victoria Park with her son Malik, 9, says the recent changes to Ontario's autism program won't help her son. (Christine Julien)

 "It doesn't matter if you say they have choice in therapy, these kids will get zero therapy in this plan," said Christine Julien, a London, Ont. mother who's nine-year-old son Malik is on the autism spectrum.  

I think it's a public relations fail .. .. and unfortunately, it might wind up to be an implementation fail.- Bill Tucker, former TVDSB superintendent of special education

Julien worries the changes to Ontario's autism program will leave many families with no choice but to seek support through special education programs provided by local school boards. 

"They've been wonderful with Malik, I couldn't ask for a better school," she said. "I worry about my son losing what he has now because there's so much stress on the school system." 

Bill Tucker is a professor at Western University's Althouse College in London. (Western University)

"I think it's a public relations fail. I think it's a consultation fail and unfortunately, it might wind up to be an implementation fail," said Bill Tucker, a former superintendent of special education at the Thames Valley District School Board. 

Tucker said he believes the province assumed that, because they were putting more money into Ontario's autism program, the changes would be well received by families and while there might be more money in the system, he says the money is being spread too thin.

"So many families are receiving less money when they should be receiving more," he said. "If the money's not there to provide that therapy in the home then the concern is that the children don't have that skill set coming into the classroom." 

Tucker said while schools can't give children therapy, they can support children in the classroom using the strategies and skills the child has learned through ABA (applied behaviour analysis) or IBI (intensive behavioural intervention).

"We can continue those strategies in the classroom, but if those strategies are not available because the funding has decreased, then the family and the child is left out in no man's land," he said. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca