Kathleen Wynne has the chance to do the right thing and support autistic children

Posted on May 19, 2016 in Child & Family Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
May 18, 2016.   Tasha Kheiriddin

On Tuesday, a rare event occurred at the Ontario legislature. Both the Progressive Conservative and NDP opposition parties put their differences aside and supported a motion demanding that the Liberal government restore access to Intensive Behaviour Intervention (IBI) therapy for 30,000 autistic children.

IBI is a 30-40 hour a week program that, for an autistic child, can be the difference between silence and dependence, and the ability to communicate, learn and achieve his or her full potential. Last month, the government announced plans to increase IBI funding for kids under five, while cutting off older children, many of whom had waited years for this therapy. The decision was based on a literature review, which found IBI was less effective for older children. Since then, not only has that review been slammed for excluding the input of IBI practitioners, but one of its authors, Dr. Ian Dawe, publicly repudiated the government’s decision.

IBI is costly, averaging $40,000 a year. Without public help, many parents could not afford it. For their families, including dozens who attended Tuesday’s debate at Queen’s Park, the changes are catastrophic. Parents found it difficult to contain their emotions as their stories were told by opposition MPPs: seven-year-old Wesley, who now talks and is toilet trained thanks to 13 months of IBI; eight -year-old Kenner, who received IBI from age five and can now communicate and attend school; and children like Mason, Trevor and Charlie, who will now not get IBI at all, because at age five, the Liberals deem them too “old” to benefit.

In response, MPP Tracy McCharles, minister of children and youth services, repeated the government’s plan to spend $333 million and add 16,000 IBI spaces for younger autistic children. But this means that the program will actually serve 14,000 fewer kids, when you consider the 30,000 who will no longer be eligible. Instead, they will receive a one-time payment of $8,000 and a watered-down version of IBI, called Applied Behaviour Analysis, for five hours a week — too little to be of real help.

Every government needs to make priorities. You can’t help everyone, with every problem. The state draws its money from the taxpayer; the challenge is limiting that input, while delivering the services that citizens need and not racking up debt, which imperils the government’s ability to fund those services. Government needs to choose, and choose wisely.

This is where the Ontario Liberals have repeatedly failed. They have prioritized too many questionable expenses: the cancellation of two gas plants at a cost of $1 billion, to save a couple of seats in the 2011 election; the payment of $1 million in legal fees for teachers’ unions during labour negotiations to secure a (bad) deal; and, most recently, a leaked $7 billion scheme to cut carbon emissions, which would raise the cost of heating and driving. But 30,000 autistic children who could benefit from life-changing therapy? They are not apparently a priority for Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Yet if the parents of those children can help it, they will be. The Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC) is planning more protests, including one at Queen’s Park on June 6. Families have the support of both the Tories and the NDP. And their voices will matter when Ontarians next go to the polls — just as they mattered in the last election.

In 2014, I, like many Ontario voters, faced a difficult choice. I was fed up with the Liberal government, its waste, mismanagement and overspending. But I was also the parent of a child with autism. The PCs were proposing to increase class sizes and cut staffing for kindergarten students. For kids with special needs, and for those without, that would mean one thing: less learning. This made me angry, so angry that I castigated the PCs for their short-sightedness and, for the first time in an election, chose not to vote for anyone.

Dave Abel/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network
Dave Abel/Toronto Sun/Postmedia NetworkPremier Kathleen Wynne speaks at Queens Park in Toronto, Ont. on Monday May 9, 2016.
Since then, I’ve gritted my teeth (and eaten crow) over a number of terrible decisions the Liberals have made — including their decision now to cut kids off IBI. But the government still has time to get one priority right, by reversing this decision.

And it doesn’t have to spend more money to do so, just change the way existing dollars are spent. For years, the OAC has shown how a direct funding model — allocating money to families instead of providers — would support more kids with the same amount of resources. Children over age five would thus not need to be cut off IBI to shorten the waitlist for younger kids.

This isn’t just about kids with autism. It is about good government. It is about choices with long-term consequences, for a society that may otherwise have to support these children for the rest of their lives. And yes, it is about the families who love them, and common decency. Wynne still has the chance to listen, and do the right thing.

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