Families protest changes to Ontario's autism program at Queen's Park

Families of children with autism say the plan unveiled last month by Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod will leave kids without access to the level of treatment they need.

Families say they face financial ruin to pay for autism therapies for their children

Last year, hundreds of parents took to Queen's Park in Toronto to protest after the Ford government announced the province's new autism funding plan pledged to clear a lengthy wait-list for treatment — by providing families a fixed amount of money based on age and income. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

​Hundreds of parents, therapists and union members gathered outside Queen's Park on Thursday to protest the provincial government's changes to Ontario's autism program.

Families of children with autism say the plan unveiled last month by Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod will leave kids without access to the level of treatment they need.

MacLeod has faced severe criticism over the revamped program, which aims to clear a wait list of 23,000 children by providing direct funding to all kids diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Families will get up to $20,000 per year for treatment for children under six and $5,000 a year for children six to 18, but intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year.

The new program kicks in on April 1, and families say they are still lacking details of how it will work. Critics say it will leave thousands of children with autism in schools without the proper supports.

Will and Nev Dundas attended the protest together. The couple has a young son on the autism spectrum who had been receiving intensive behavioural therapy, which is usually administered in a small group setting by a registered therapist and overseen by a psychologist. 

When the changes come into effect, their son will have to move to a regular school within the Toronto District School Board.

"We spoke with the principal there, and there will be absolutely no support for him when he starts," Mev said through tears.

The pair says they are currently looking at selling their home so they can afford to continue to provide their son with behavioural therapy.

"We are selling our home to be able to support our son. What parent would want to make that decision? What options do we have? The impact, financially, is staggering," said Will.

He said he believes the PC government failed to consult with experts about the changes and produced an "arbitrary, random policy that doesn't help anyone."

"This isn't a one size fits all and the most vulnerable, they need the help. What the government is doing is ridiculous."

Joseph Trozzo, father to a 14-year-old son with autism, echoed that sentiment in an interview with CBC Toronto.

"Each child on the spectrum has unique needs. We need a long-term solution that works for these families so that these kids can be a part of society," he said.

Families of children with autism staged another protest outside of Queen's Park on Thursday, while inside the Ford government defended its changes to autism supports. (Ali Chiasson/CBC)

Trozzo's son was not able to speak until age five.

"Without the intensive behavioural therapy, he wouldn't be where he is," he explained. "I can tell you that the therapy works. We can't keep coming here every three or four years and keep doing this."

The protest was also attended by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and several other NDP MPPs, as well Liberal MPP Michael Coteau. 

MacLeod wasn't at the protest on the lawn of the legislature, telling reporters on Wednesday that the tone of the debate has raised concerns about her personal safety.

"We've had some credible threats, so we're going to make sure that first and foremost [we're] maintaining the safety of me and my team," she said.

Her office says MacLeod has received threats against her life through social media and by phone, and a spokesman says police have been contacted.

With files from Lucas Powers