Seeking clarity on Ontario’s autism therapy

Posted on October 3, 2022 in Health Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials
Oct. 3, 2022.   By Star Editorial Board

If the province can’t reach its target for the Ontario Autism Program, then it ought to come clean and admit it, rather than offering hollow assurances.

If you’d like to know how many children have been enrolled in core therapies through the Ontario Autism Program, you’re out of luck. The province recently refused to provide the Canadian Press with an update on the numbers.

That refusal came after an update in August, which revealed that the numbers were not good. While the Progressive Conservatives had originally promised to enroll 8,000 children in core therapies by the end of this fall, the August update reported that they’ve reached little more than one tenth of their target — just 888.

That means the province has about three months to enroll 7,000 children. Ordinarily, that might seem an attainable if ambitious goal, but given repeated delays and changes to the program, families aren’t being placated by the province’s continued insistence that things remain on track.

The province has offered numerous reasons — or excuses — for the lack of progress in reaching its goal: It took time to get the new registration portal (AccessOAP) up and running, people haven’t responded to invitations to register for the program, it’s summer and people are busy, and, worst of all, some people have been waiting so long, they might no longer need therapy.

It is true that many families haven’t responded to invitations, and it’s important that they do so. By mid-August, fewer than 1,700 families had registered with AccessOAP, even though the government had sent out 6,300 invitations.

Angela Brandt, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, suggested families’ slow response could itself be explained by the government’s sloth, since families have been waiting up to seven years for assistance. “Part of the reason is that everybody’s lost trust,” she told the Canadian Press and after years of waiting, many parents doubt registering will make any difference.

This learned helplessness is understandable given that the program has been beset by problems since its inception. The program, first announced by the former Liberal government in 2016, was originally intended to provide core therapies based on children’s needs.

When the Conservatives took over in 2018, they replaced the needs-based program with an income-tested one that would provide less funding for high-income families.

The province ultimately decided to scrap income-testing and follow an advisory panel’s recommendation to return to a needs-based approach. But in the meantime, it planned to “clear the waitlist” by offering one-time payments for therapy — $20,000 for young children and $5,000 for older kids.

Since therapy frequently costs in the range of $90,000 annually, the one-time payments were met with outrage and did little to achieve their stated goal: According to the government’s own statistics, more than 56,000 kids are now registered with the program, and the vast majority have not received funding for core clinical services.

That number would fill the Rogers Centre and still leave some people out in the cold. But in this case, all children and families without funding for core therapies remain on the outside looking in, not knowing if or when their numbers will come up.

And not knowing is often the worst part, as it affects not just vulnerable children, but families’ financial planning. Given the understandable lack of trust families have in the program, it’s important the government seek to repair the relationship by increasing, rather than decreasing, transparency and outreach.

If the province can’t reach its target, then it ought to come clean and admit it, rather than offering hollow assurances that things are proceeding apace, especially when the evidence suggests otherwise. And instead of going radio silent, it ought to speak to families to find a way to care for those who need it most.

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