Ontario’s controversial autism program to be revised amid backlash



The Controversy

This month, Children, Community, and Social Services Minister Lisa Mcleod unrolled a new autism program. The new program bases funding on age of autism diagnosis and family income. The program aims to reduce the wait-list of 23,000 children seeking treatment. In the new model, families who have a net income of under $55,000 will receive full funding for treatment; everyone else will receive up to $20,000 a year for children under 6, then $5,000 annually up to age 18.

The changes have come as an unpleasant surprise to families who rely on government-funded behavioural therapy. In the Liberal model, funding was given to regional service providers who maintained waiting lists of families in need of financial support. Once a child reached the top of the list, they were funded in full or offered the option of spending their government allocated dollars in the private sector. Families relied on the Liberal model to provide treatment to children who required intensive therapy, which can cost up to $80,000 annually. The revised program will no longer be providing children who require more costly therapy with adequate funding, prompting families to speak out against the human rights issues that have arisen.

Mike Moffatt, Canadian economist and father of two children with autism, asserts that funding based on age of diagnosis discriminates against girls. Girls are typically diagnosed later than boys, and consequently, will receive substantially less funding, particularly if they are diagnosed after the age of 6. Further, the changes in funding will discourage work by mothers and secondary earners because of the loss of benefits eliminates incentives for parents to stay in the labour force. The shortening of the waitlist also comes at the price of front-line therapists losing their jobs as parents pull their children out of programs they can no longer afford.

The Revisions

Today, amid intense backlash, the Ford government announced that they will be revising the program.“Parents were right when they said that autism is a spectrum and that there are different needs for children on the spectrum,” said Mcleod.

The revisions will seek to provide more needs-based help for children with autism, making more funding available to families in all income brackets. The government also plans to make funding available to additional services such as speech therapy, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy. Further, families will be able to renew current behavioural therapy services for another 6 months, providing temporary relief and time to find alternatives.

However, the specifics of the needs-based funding model remain unclear. Families must await the details of the program to determine the impact on their children. For now, they wait.