Parents 'outraged' over autism funding changes, says opposition critic

Families with children with autism are frustrated by the Progressive Conservative government's changes to autism funding in Ontario, says Ottawa Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden, the party's critic for people with disabilities.

Joel Harden, NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre, held autism roundtable Saturday night

Lisa MacLeod says she's committed to implementing the new autism program in Ontario. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Families with children with autism are "outraged" by the Progressive Conservative government's changes to autism funding in Ontario, says the opposition's critic for people with disabilities.

Joel Harden, the NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre, held a roundtable Saturday evening for families to voice how the forthcoming changes would affect them.

More than 40 families registered to attend, he said.   

"They're outraged that we can have a medicare system that treats health care concerns if you're physically, visibly injured — but for mental health concerns, people have to fend for themselves with fixed budgets," said Harden.

Frustrated parents protesting

On Feb. 6, the Doug Ford government announced changes to the Ontario Autism Program to offer what it described as more immediate assistance to all families.

The new model seeks to address the lengthy autism diagnostic process, which currently takes an average of 31 weeks to complete.

But parents have said the PCs are essentially taking funding away from existing autism programs and forcing families to find more expensive therapy.

Parents have also expressed fear that their children will regress when, under the new approach, funding for certain therapies drops off.

Speaking ahead of Saturday night's roundtable, Harden said he wanted to get grassroots information from parents so that he could make a compelling case to government. 

"I don't understand why our medicare system can't meet people's needs. Why they have to be rationed, why they have to remortgage their homes. That's not right," said Harden. 

NDP MPP Joel Harden says he's been getting many phone calls from parents who are worried about the new autism program in Ontario. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Lengthy backlog

The government said it hopes the new plan will eliminate the backlog of 23,000 children waiting for autism therapy services in Ontario. Under these changes, those on wait lists can expect to have funds for therapy in hand within 18 months.

Under the program, which comes into effect on April 1, a family can receive a maximum of $140,000 in total funding until the age of 18 — depending on age and household income. 

Rallies protesting the changes have been popping up across the province, including Ottawa. 

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod said Saturday that her government has made a decision, and as the minister responsible for Ontario's autism program she will implement that decision.

Emily Sheridan, whose son has autism, was among the protesters who rallied outside social services minister Lisa MacLeod's Ottawa constituency office last week. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

"I remain committed to ensuring that we get the 75 percent of children who are on the wait list cleared off the wait list. That's why I doubled the investment into diagnostic hubs, including at the Children's Hospital in Eastern Ontario," said MacLeod. 

"And that's why we will go directly to funding parents so that we can empower them to get the best choices for their child — whether that's behavioural therapy, technological aids, respite care, or caregiver training," she said. 

MacLeod also tweeted an apology late Thursday after the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysts said the minister pressured it to support the controversial new funding method.

Opposition MPPs have called on MacLeod to resign. While some parents have agreed, many have said they just want her to backtrack to fund autism therapy in a way that helps children.

When asked if she had any plans to resign from her post, MacLeod said she was "committed to implementing this program."

Families have said they promise to keep protesting until the minister revisits the funding scheme.

About the Author

Krystalle Ramlakhan

Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.

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