PC staffer quits over what he calls Ontario's 'absolutely wrongheaded' autism plan

A PC staffer, who was formerly president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, has resigned over the Ford government's changes to the autism program, calling the decision "indefensible."

Ford government will give families of autistic children up to $140K for treatment

Bruce McIntosh, the former head of the Ontario Autism Coalition, has left his job with the PC government over its changes to the way autism therapy is paid for in the province. (John Rieti/CBC)

A PC staffer has resigned over changes to Ontario's autism program, calling the Ford government's new plan "indefensible."

"The decisions that the government has made ... are absolutely wrongheaded," said Bruce McIntosh, who resigned as the legislative assistant for MPP Amy Fee on Wednesday after the government's announcement.

The new plan doesn't recognize the differences in need between children at different ends of the autism spectrum, said McIntosh, who is the former president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and father of a child with autism.

The funding "doesn't come close," to what families require, said McIntosh, calling needs-based funding "absolutely critical."

"I'm not going to stay there and try and tell you that it's OK."

Doug Ford's government announced its plan to clear the province-wide wait list within 18 months on Wednesday. About 23,000 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders are waiting for government-funded treatment in Ontario, while just 8,400 are currently in the program receiving therapy.

The government will give funding for treatment directly to families, instead of regional service providers, with a total of up to $140,000 per child until the age of 18.

That funding is based on age, said Lisa MacLeod, minister of Children, Community and Social Services. A child entering the program at age two would be eligible to receive up to $140,000, while a child entering the program at age seven would receive up to $55,000.

On Thursday, MacLeod defended the government's actions during an appearance on CBC Radio's Metro Morning. You can listen to that interview below:

Concerns over care for older children

While families can get up to $20,000 a year until their child turns six, they can only get $5,000 a year after that, McIntosh said.

But intensive autism therapy can cost between $50,000 and $70,000 a year, said Ontario Autism Coalition president Laura Kirby-McIntosh, who is McIntosh's wife. The most intense treatment may be around $80,000, he added.

This means some families will quickly run out of funding.

Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's minister of Children, Community and Social Services, revealed changes to the province's autism program on Wednesday. (CBC)

As well, families making over $250,000 will not receive funding, MacLeod said.

MacLeod said the money will be front-loaded for younger children, because they experience the most need at younger ages. Research shows early intervention has the most impact in helping kids on the autism spectrum, MacLeod said.

Sources previously told CBC News the government will act on 14 out of 19 improvements requested by the Ontario Autism Coalition, and that funding to the program will not be cut. 

But McIntosh said the new plan acts against the OAC's recommendations.

"The government was given a list of three things that the [Ontario Autism Coalition] wanted them to do, and three things they shouldn't do," said McIntosh. "And they did the very first thing on the top of the shouldn't do list."

Kirby-McIntosh said they previously fought for needs-based funding under the Liberal government.

Parents of children with autism protested against the previous Liberal government in the spring of 2016 when it announced that people over age four would be cut off from funding for intensive therapy. The Liberals ultimately backed down.

That government's revised Ontario's autism program was in 2017 to give parents the option between either receiving therapy from government-funding service providers or receiving funding directly to pay a private therapist.

MPP Amy Fee, as a parent to two children with autism spectrum disorder, had protested in 2016 alongside them, Kirby-McIntosh told the Canadian Press. Fee is now McLeod's parliamentary assistant.

Improvements 'thrown away'

McIntosh said the new plan is "spreading the same amount of money more thinly."

Waitlist times — while still too long — have become "considerably better" in recent years, he said.

The directions that things were going was making "steady improvement," he said.

"But now that's all been thrown away for something that's not going to work and isn't equitable," McIntosh said.

More money for diagnostic hubs

The government also announced Wednesday it will double government spending on autism diagnostic hubs to $5.5 million a year for the next two years.

There are around 2,400 children in line for assessment, with an average wait list of 31 weeks, according to government figures.

Ford's government also announced they are also creating a provider list to help families find clinical supervisors for behavioural services.

The government is also creating an independent agency to "bring families into the program, help them manage their funding, and assist them in purchasing and accessing services."

MacLeod said families on the waiting list can expect to receive funding within the next 18 months.

With files from the Canadian Press, Mike Crawley, Dwight Drummond