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Ontario, CA: Govt makes "slow progress"; 54K kids with autism on waitlist

Aug 14, 2022, Sudbury (ON): Slow progress in Ontario autism program rollout; officials insist they're on target https://www.sudbury.com/beyond-local/slow-progress-in-ontario-autism-program-rollout-officials-insist-theyre-on-target-5694967

TORONTO — Ontario has enrolled 888 children with autism in core therapies – adding just 30 to the government's revamped program since April – but insists it will meet its goal of enrolling 8,000 kids by the end of the fall.

Government officials, speaking on background in a technical briefing, said recently that movement has been slow over the past few months due to a new intake process that as of late July is now up and running, and they believe those numbers will start to grow exponentially.

But they are puzzled by a relatively low response rate to letters they have sent to families inviting them to register with the independent intake organization, the first step in the new process for children to get government-funded therapy.

Angela Brandt, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said the government need only look to its history with the autism program to explain the lower-than-expected uptake. "Part of the reason is that everybody's lost trust," she said in an interview. "It's four years later, and there's still no program."

The Progressive Conservative government announced in early 2019 that it was going to "clear the wait-list" by giving families either $20,000 or $5,000 to pay for therapy, depending on the age of the child.

But parents were furious and held waves of protests, since intensive therapy can cost upwards of $90,000 a year. The government funding was too small to amount to anything meaningful for higher-need children and services to help teach basic skills should be determined by need, not age, they said.

The government ultimately scrapped the program and went back to the drawing board. The next minister on the file then announced a new, needs-based program with a doubled budget, but conceded in December 2019 that it would be phased in over two years instead of being fully up and running by the following April.

Merrilee Fullerton is now the third minister of children, community and social services in four years, and said the rollout of the needs-based program was "progressing well."

"I strongly encourage families to respond to their invitations and enrol," she wrote in a statement. "We have a large, dedicated team to support families through this process, and are all working to ensure continued progress."

There are more than 54,000 children registered in the program and waiting for core services. The autism community has been protesting delays of the program's rollout by saying "50k is not OK." Some of those children have been waiting for seven years.

But the government disputes that framing, saying the number doesn't represent the wait-list because about 40,000 kids have received something. That includes interim one-time payments and an entry-to-school program, but many families say what their children really need is core clinical services.

About 600 families were enrolled in a pilot phase of the new core clinical services program starting in March 2021, and by the end of April 2022, the number grew to 858. There are also children receiving therapy who were grandfathered in from the previous Liberal program….

Hundreds of parents, therapists and union members gather outside Queen's Park, in Toronto on Thursday, March 7, 2019, to protest the provincial government's changes to Ontario's autism program. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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