Nova Scotia

IWK psychologist says young children with autism still waiting for help

A psychologist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax says older preschoolers with autism are getting the help they need in Nova Scotia, but, ideally, we'd be treating children at a much younger age.

Head of intervention program responds to premier's claim there is no wait list

Dr. Chitty says, on average, there are around 40 children in the program, and she estimates there may be as many as 80 younger children waiting to be admitted. (Submitted)

A psychologist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax says older preschoolers with autism are getting the help they need in Nova Scotia, but dozens of younger children are still waiting for treatment.

Psychologist Dorothy Chitty was responding to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who told CBC News on Wednesday that his government had eliminated the wait list for children with autism in this province.

McNeil made the comment to CBC News reporter Jean LaRoche, saying the reduction of the film tax credit helps fund other programs. 

Program should admit kids 'as soon as they're diagnosed'

Chitty, provincial leader of the early intensive behavioural intervention program said the program doesn't technically have a wait list.

Staff simply prioritize older children — who are four and five-years-old — so they can get the treatment they need before starting school.

She said, "in an ideal world, we'd be seeing them as soon as they're diagnosed," and that can happen as early as 18 months.

On average, there are around 40 children in the program, and Chitty estimates there may be as many as 80 younger children waiting to be admitted. Those numbers apply to the EIBI program at the IWK Health Centre and the provincial numbers are approximately double that, she said.

"But I also recognize that we're a province with limited resources," Chitty said. "That's the place we're in."

How Nova Scotia compares to other jurisdictions

The quality of services for children with autism across Canada varies, Chitty said, and Nova Scotia falls somewhere in the middle. 

In Ontario, "there are some children who don't get this service because they are more high-functioning children, or their behaviours aren't severe enough," she said. "I also know that other provinces offer children services right into the school, and a lot more services."

Improvements since 2010

Chitty said Nova Scotia's program has improved in recent years. In 2010, she said the province was "randomly-selecting" which children with autism would get help.

That has improved to the point where all four and five-year-olds get treatment, she said.

But the pressure is increasing as the number of children with autism in the province increases, Chitty said, perhaps due to improvements when it comes to diagnosis.

In its 2015-2016 budget, the Nova Scotia government promised an additional $1 million for the EIBI program, bringing the total annual investment in the program up to $10 million.

At the time, the province said the plan for that money was to increase the number of spaces in the program from 90 to 110 or 115. 

How the program works

The early intensive behavioural intervention program is designed to help preschoolers with autism improve their communication and social skills.

That includes teaching non-verbal children how to talk, how to interact socially with adults and other children, how to improve sleeping or eating habits, and how to avoid disruptive behaviours.

Children participate in the program for one year. For the first six months, they meet with staff 15 hours a week, then those hours are gradually reduced.

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