End the wait on autism

TheStar.com – Opinion/editorial – End the wait on autism
August 24, 2008

Stacy Hayward thought her 4-year-old son’s long wait for autism therapy was finally over. More than 18 months after being diagnosed with the neurological disorder, Branden reached the top of the waiting list earlier this summer and was slated to start intensive behavioural intervention (IBI) in September.

Late last month, the Welland family got bad news. Their local treatment centre told them the Hamilton-Niagara autism intervention program – one of nine regional programs funded by the Ontario government – was facing a budget crunch and new admissions were being delayed. That meant Branden would have to keep waiting.

Despite the prohibitive costs, which can run into tens of thousands of dollars a year, Hayward has hired a private IBI therapist to work with her son.

The Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which funds the regional autism programs, says the number of children receiving IBI has roughly tripled from 531 to about 1,400 since the Liberals took office in 2003. So has annual funding, which has jumped from $44 million to $151 million over the same period. But some of the regional providers say the money hasn’t kept up with the demands on their programs.

Dr. Peter Steer, president of McMaster Children’s Hospital, credits the province for putting an “enormous amount of money” into autism services. But he also says the Hamilton-Niagara program, which the hospital oversees, started seeing a “mismatch” last year between government funding and its “activity targets.” Without a fresh infusion of funding, the program faces a projected deficit of $1.8 million this year if it continues to offer the same level of services to the same number of children.

At least one other regional service provider has also run into similar trouble. Child Care Resources, the Sudbury-based lead agency for the northern region, said last month it had “no choice but to plan for a dramatic reduction in service” to avoid a projected deficit of close to $2.5 million.

Both programs have said that children who are already receiving IBI will continue to get it. But if the funding gaps are not resolved, children on the waiting list could face longer waits.

Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews believes government funding has kept pace with the expanded number of IBI spots, according to a spokesperson. The ministry says it has been working with regional service providers to address their budget problems, and progress is being made.

But with 1,100 children facing long delays for help, Matthews needs to end the waiting game before the lists get any longer.

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