Nova Scotia

New autism support program 'creates hope for families'

A pilot program announced by the province will send teams of specialists to families with young people with autism spectrum disorder experiencing extreme behavioural challenges.

Teams will work with families for about six weeks in area they spend the most time

Patricia George-Zwicker said the new program gives her hope other families won't experience the same challenges her family faced. (CBC)

Patricia George-Zwicker remembers being a teenager struggling to navigate a health-care system that just didn't seem to have answers and support for her.

Now at 50, and living successfully with a diagnosis of autism that came much later in life, George-Zwicker is heartened by the idea others might not have to face the same struggles she and her family did.

"To be here and witness this, it gives me great hope," she said.

George-Zwicker made the comments after watching Health Minister Randy Delorey announce a one-year pilot program called the Brief Intensive Outreach Service, which will help children and young people with autism spectrum disorder who are experiencing the most challenging and acute behavioural issues

Health Minister Randy Delorey said the hope is for the teams to be in place by the summer. (CBC)

A team of four specialists, including a social worker, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist and psychologist, will be based in Halifax in the Central Zone and in Cape Breton for that portion of the Eastern Zone. People will be able to refer themselves to the program.

The two teams will work with children and their families for about six weeks in the area they spend the most time — at home or school or elsewhere — to build a support and intervention program to help stabilize the situation and prevent escalations, said Delorey.

"This can mean the difference between a negative or positive experience at school, at home and in activities in the community," he said.

Cynthia Carroll, executive director of Autism Nova Scotia, said the announcement is "historic" and addresses a crucial need for outreach support.

Cynthia Carroll of Autism Nova Scotia said the program addresses a long-standing gap in services for families facing crisis situations. (CBC)

For years, she said, emergency departments have been a place of last resort for families, but those sites simply aren't equipped for the kind of crisis situations families in need face.

"No matter the good intentions of the hard-working emergency personnel, the truth of the matter is the lack of support and intense stress of an emergency room alone can often escalate the situation."

Carroll said the announcement comes at a time when Autism Nova Scotia has seen a 100 per cent increase in complex case calls.

"They're now coming in monthly, and these are very complex cases that require very specialized services."

Hopes for more teams

The eight jobs were posted Friday and it's hoped the program will be ready to begin by the summer.

It's unknown how many cases they'll be able to handle at once, but health-care officials said those details would be worked out in the coming months.

The government will spend $800,000 on the program this year. Delorey said it will be evaluated to determine how it might expand after the initial year.

While she hopes to see the program spread across the province, Carroll said Friday's announcement is a sign the government recognizes the gap in services and is making a change to the system.

"That creates hope for families."



Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at


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