Ontario autism program changes ‘best for all children,’ says social services minister

Posted on February 20, 2019 in Child & Family Policy Context

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TheStar.com – Politics/Provincial Politics
Feb. 19, 2019.   By

Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod defended her government’s new autism program, saying “it’s in the best interest for all children” and replaces an “unconscionable” system that left three of four kids without service.

“I couldn’t, in good conscience, look at a (wait list) of 23,000 children and allow them to sit there for years,” MacLeod told reporters after Tuesday’s question period where she faced criticism from the opposition for the autism overhaul.

“… I believe this plan is in the best interest of all Ontarians — it’s fair, it’s equitable and, more importantly, it’s sustainable now and into the future,” she said.

Upset parents are expected to descend on Queen’s Park on Wednesday to speak about why the new system doesn’t work for many families, and then pack the public gallery during question period.

Under the changes, which come into effect April 1, the government has promised to clear the wait lists for diagnosis and therapy, and will introduce a childhood budget allowing families to choose the services they want.

Families will be eligible for up to $20,000 a year for children under 6 — up to a lifetime maximum of $140,000. Children older than that can access up to $5,000 a year up to age 18, to a lifetime maximum of $55,000.

However, only families earning less than $55,000 in net income will qualify for the full funding amounts.

Critics, however, have noted that families whose children have severe needs can spend $80,000 a year alone on behaviour therapy.

Toronto mother Freda Baras said she received government funding for her 6-year-old son just last year for therapy — after two years of paying out-of-pocket and running up $130,000 in debt — “and I don’t know what’s going to happen” come April.

She said parents are asking MacLeod to pause the changes, and hold consultations on how to improve the system.

MacLeod, however, told the legislature the changes will go ahead, and said the Ford government is spending $321 million on autism services, up from the Liberals’ $256 million.

“Let me be perfectly clear: This government believes in this plan, this government will implement this plan and I will be the minister that does this,” MacLeod said.

The minister also again apologized for her tone during a meeting with a group of behavioural analysts — who say she warned them of a “long four years” if they didn’t publicly support the autism changes — acknowledging it was “tense.”

“I very much apologize if the tone that I took in the meeting was interpreted in any way, shape or form to be threatening,” she said. “That’s not how I would have liked to have collaborated. I really truly am sorry.”

Liberal MPP Michael Coteau — who took over the autism file when the Liberals were in power — is now asking the integrity commissioner to probe MacLeod’s behaviour.

New Democrat MPP Monique Taylor called the PCs autism program “disastrous” and noted that many protests have been held across the province.

Taylor, her party’s children and youth critic, said the government says the current system helps just one-quarter of children with autism, but the new system is worse.

“Only 25 per cent?” she said. “Now you are giving 100 per cent nothing. It doesn’t make sense.”

Correction – February 20, 2019: This article was edited from a previous version that misstated the total maximum funding eligibility for families with children under 6.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy


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