'Take care of our kids': Marchers demand national autism strategy

Families in Ottawa marched 20 kilometres to Parliament Hill Sunday in order to pressure federal politicians to launch a national autism strategy. 

Protesters walked from Barrhaven to Parliament Hill Sunday

Hundreds of people marched from Ottawa's Barrhaven neighbourhood to Parliament Hill on March 31, 2019, to push for the federal government to implement a national autism strategy. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Families in Ottawa marched from Barrhaven to Parliament Hill Sunday in order to pressure federal politicians to launch a national autism strategy. 

The protesters, many hailing from across Ontario, departed from Fallowfield Road at 8:30 a.m. and arrived at Parliament Hill — a 20-kilometre walk — five hours later. 

Michelle Cedeno came to Ottawa from Toronto for the rally. Her four-year-old son Antonio lives with autism. 

"The province has been changing their strategy every four years it seems like, and parents are ... tired of fighting. We're advocating for the best for our children," said Cedeno.

"In 2016 there was a fight ... and now it's happening again. And you know what? It's time for the feds to step in and just take care of our kids. They deserve it."

Michelle Cedeno holds a large sign with the face of her four-year-old son Antonio, who has autism. She says parents are tired of having to fight for autism support whenever the government changes. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Provincial pleas falling 'on deaf ears'

Sunday's march began at the office of Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's minister for children, community and social services.

It was organized by parents in Barrhaven asking the federal government to standardize needs-based autism services across Canada.

The rally follows a number of protests that have taken place across Ontario against the provincial government's changes to Ontario's autism program. Earlier this weekend, parents of children with autism also hit the streets of Hawkesbury, Ont., to protest those changes, which come into effect Monday.

"We've been asking the provincial government to pause the plan, and it's going on deaf ears," said Nicole Taylor, who marched in Ottawa Sunday.

She said her eight-year-old son Paul is on the autism spectrum.

"The kids don't deserve this, and there's a lot of children that have been [receiving therapy]. For them to lose said service, there could be regression," said Taylor.

Mandy Stapley travelled to Ottawa from Napanee, Ont., to join Sunday's march. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Mandy Stapley travelled from Napanee, Ont., to Parliament Hill for her five-year-old son Hank, who lives with autism. 

"It would be great to have something in place so that we don't have to go through this every four years, and worry about our children's need when a new government comes into place. It would be great if we could have a long-term plan," said Stapley.

"Having a child with autism or any kind of special need, you worry about their future enough. You don't really want to have to worry about whether the services are going to be available." 

Changes designed to reduce wait times

In February, Ontario's Progressive Conservative government announced its plan to tackle autism therapy waiting lists by passing funds directly to parents subsidizing treatment programs.

Under the new program, families with children under the age of six who have autism will receive up to $20,000 a year for support, while children over the age of six will be eligible for $5,000 until they turn 18.

After six weeks of sustained pressure from parents and advocates, however, MacLeod announced changes last week to the government's plans. Income testing would be eliminated, MacLeod said, and more services — like speech and occupational therapy — would be made available.

MacLeod said she would also explore how best to provide additional supports based on the needs of children diagnosed with autism.

The funding for Ontario's new autism program — which will come out in the government's budget, set to be tabled April 11 — could be upward of $600 million, MacLeod said last week.

Nicole Taylor says the Ontario government isn't listening to parents of children with autism. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

'Still working in silos'

Ontario Sen. Jim Munson, who called for a national autism strategy more than a decade ago, also attended Sunday's rally.

"Right now, we're still working in silos," said Munson.

"At the end of the day, the only thing that is going to work in this country is a national autism strategy ... Families with autism deserve as much as any family that has another particular health issue."

A number of people addressed the crowd of hundreds, including Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden, deputy Green Party leader Abhijeet Manay and Suzanne Jacobson, founder of the non-profit QuickStart — a group that supports families of children with autism.

Organizers said at least 600 people took part in the rally.

"It's amazing to have this many people from across Ontario come and join us for this walk," said organizer Kerry Monaghan.

About the Author

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

With files from Radio-Canada's Yasmine Mehdi


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