By Osobe Waberi The Canadian Press
TORONTO – The Ontario government began rolling out the first phase of its new program for families with autistic children on Friday, but critics and parents remain skeptical of the plan.
The province made the announcement in a news release earlier in the week, saying the new program will begin providing “foundational family services” to support the learning and development of children with autism.
The government said those services – which include mentoring, caregiver workshops and coaching tailored to unique regional and cultural needs – form one pillar of the province’s new, needs-based autism program.
“As we work towards full-implementation of the program, we continue to support families with existing behaviour plans, and those on the waitlist through interim one-time funding,” a spokesperson for Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith said in an email.
“Once fully implemented, all families registered for the program will be able to access support and services through one or more of our four pillars, no matter where they live in Ontario,” Trell Huether said.
Last year, in a bid to eliminate waitlists, Premier Doug Ford’s government changed the way it pays for autism treatment. However, the measures reduced the average amount paid to families, and following public backlash, the government announced it would create a needs-based program.
NDP critic Monique Taylor said the Ford government promised families a fully implemented program by April 2020 and failed to deliver.
“We’re in August … in the midst of a pandemic and families are receiving no service,” Taylor said in an interview this week.
“The Ford government should be ashamed of themselves for making this announcement when families were expecting real core services.”
Some family members of children living with autism said the new services that started rolling out on Friday offered little relief.
“I have no faith in this government and their actions to date,” said Tennelle Wong, mother to a 7-year-old boy living with autism.
“If they were not able to do it under normal circumstances, how are they able to do anything now during a pandemic?”
The Ajax resident and mother or two said she sold her first home back in 2016 in a bid to support her son Justin, but is still $90,000 in debt. She said her family can no longer rely on the government.
“If I have to sell this other house I will – I won’t sit and wait,” Wong said. “If children with autism are not taken care of in a timely manner, they will be a burden to the system down the road.”
Wong said she would rather the government provide “an imperfect early intervention program” then a perfectly packaged one that she said is taking years to come into fruition.
A recent report from the province’s fiscal watchdog said the waitlist for autism services in the province grew to 27,600 children last year.
The report released by Financial Accountability Officer Peter Weltman in July said the increase came as the province shifted funding for behavioural therapy programs in 2019-2020.
Cheryl Clark said her seven-year-old son Drew was on the waitlist for four years awaiting funding. She said she recently received a one-time payment of $5,000, but although this ended her son’s wait, she would have preferred to wait a little longer for a “proper” needs-based program.
“Our family has had to use all our savings to put Drew into these programs,” Clark said. “We are disheartened by the constant delays, empty promises and hollow sentiments.”
Wong and Clark believe that if they waited for the government support their loved ones, they would be missing out on important development that is needed at the earliest stages of their lives.
“Every child is unique in what they require,” Wong said. “If we sat back waiting for the government delays the gap would be worse.”