Wynne leaves door open to changing implementation of autism program

Premier Kathleen Wynne is leaving the door slightly open to changing the way the Ontario government implements its controversial new autism program.

Parents of autistic kids 5 and older blasted government last month over cuts to intensive therapy

Premier Kathleen Wynne said Wednesday there is "room to consider" changes to the province's controversial new autism program that was criticized by parents of autistic children last month. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Premier Kathleen Wynne is leaving the door slightly open to changing the way the Ontario government implements its controversial new autism program.

The Liberal government recently announced a new Ontario Autism Program with $333 million in funding, which will ultimately integrate Intensive Behavioural Intervention and Applied Behavioural Analysis therapies, currently in two separate streams, into a flexible service they're calling enhanced ABA.

But the changes include limiting IBI to children between two and four, as the government says expert advice is to focus on children in that developmental window.

Parents of kids who are removed from the IBI wait list because of those changes are getting $8,000 to pay for private treatment ahead of the new program's full roll-out in 2018, but parents say that will only pay for, at most, a few months of intensive therapy. The government has said $8,000 figure would pay for 36 weeks of moderate-level therapy.

Wynne said Wednesday that parents have told her they would benefit from more direct funding.

"Our response to that is well, the $8,000 is direct funding and could we look at whether once that $8K is spent, is there some opportunity to look at situations where families may actually benefit from more direct funding, as opposed to a direct service model?" she said.

"It's very important that we get this right and so yes, absolutely, there is room to consider how we provide the best tailor-made service for students and young people because that's the point of this."

Brianne Brown, whose son has been in the IBI waiting list for about two-and-a-half years and will turn five in September, said Wynne's comments are "definitely a backtrack."

"She's definitely softened her stance on it, it sounds like," Brown said.

If Brown's son gets IBI before he's five, he will get some government-funded treatment, but will be transitioned to the new system at a six-month assessment and would not qualify for the $8,000.

"I look at her response as a step in the right direction," she said.

Kristen Ellison, one of the many parents who has vocally opposed the program changes through a social media campaign as well as at rallies, said the pressure from parents will continue.

"Until she puts it in writing that there's actually changes it doesn't mean anything," Ellison said.

"She's giving you a glimmer of hope, but she didn't promise to act on it. She just admitted she's listening — which, great, she should have been listening for the last seven or eight weeks."

The new age cut-off affects 1,377 children five and older who are already receiving IBI, 835 children in that age group who are on the wait list, and a further 1,331 younger kids who are expected to turn five while they are still on the wait list.

The government has said its new program will mean 16,000 more children will receive services — mostly ABA — and that IBI wait times will go from a current average of 2 1/2 years to six months by 2021.

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