600 children to start in new, needs-based Ontario Autism Program next month

The province is beginning to roll out the core of its new autism program, with some 600 children to start receiving needs-based services starting in March.

The new plan was supposed to be in place by April 2020, but has faced delays in particular because of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns.

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith told the Star that “it’s really important that we get those 600 children into the program, getting the needs-based therapy starting next month, and then analyze that, getting feedback from the families to evaluate and refine the process.

“ … The one thing we want to do is make sure we get this right.”

Successive governments have struggled to reform autism programming, and families opposed the Progressive Conservative government’s initial plan for family budgets that would have provided maximum amounts depending on a child’s age and family income.

Following an outcry, the province struck a panel in late 2019 that recommended a needs-based program to begin in April 2020, providing funding and services in a timely way regardless of a child’s age — allowing families access to services such as behavioural, occupational and speech therapy, as well as mental health supports, most of which were not previously covered.

The government also doubled spending on the program to $ 600 million annually.

“Certainly COVID has been difficult, and it’s been more difficult for families — I’ve been speaking with those families almost daily about the challenges they’ve been facing,” said Smith.

Financial support has been extended to all families registered with the Ontario Autism Program to fill the gap and afford services until the new system is up and running, he also said.

“I’m really pleased to announce we are launching the core services as of March, and moving those families into the new needs-based program,” he added.

“… Providing core clinical services is a critical step forward in the development of a needs-based autism program designed by the community for the community.”

Starting immediately, “care coordinators” will be trained to help families navigate what’s available and determine the best therapies for their child.

Last summer, the government started workshops and mentoring for families as part of the new autism program.

In October, however, the Ontario Autism Coalition criticized the government for continued delays, saying “the Ford government has failed to deliver its promised needs-based program” in time.

“One year later, nothing has changed,” the group said in a release, also saying that some $ 147 million of the annual autism budget was not spent.

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“Many children have lost valuable time and families remain in crisis,” the group said at the time.

Liberal MPP Michael Coteau — a former cabinet minister who took over the autism portfolio after initial changes by the Wynne government were widely panned by those in the autism community — said in an interview with the Star last December that “it’s been two and a half years and alot of those families are still in a desperate stage.”

Kristin Rushowy

TORONTO STAR