The Star, Sun., May 8, 2016
The government wants to reduce wait list times for intensive treatments for autism. Unfortunately it is doing so by simply cutting kids on the wait list who are over 5. That’s not fair.
When it comes to treatments for autism, which affects one out of every 68 kids, the Ontario government seems to mean well. It is investing $333 million in services over the next five years to reduce the waiting time for intensive autism treatment for children down to six months by 2021 from the current two to four years.
That’s a smart move because the treatment, which helps kids learn to communicate, socialize and relate to others, works best when children are aged 2 to 4. Currently the average age of children when they finally get off the waiting list and into treatment is 6.
In fact, as part of the new program the government is rolling out four new early interventions aimed at children as young as 12 months.
So far, so good.
But how the Wynne government is going about reducing the wait-list time is all wrong. It’s cutting 2,200 children who are 5 or older from the list, and taking another 1,378 kids in that age group out of treatment.
This is heartbreaking news for parents who have put their hopes in their children receiving intensive treatment and have been waiting years for it. Services for those children should be grandfathered. Otherwise, as NDP children’s services critic Monique Taylor notes, the government will be creating “a lost generation of kids.”
Left behind in the dust are children like Ottawa’s Jacob Bourdon, who was diagnosed with autism in 2013 and placed on a waiting list for the treatments. While waiting for him to be accepted into the intensive government training program, his parents sold their car and home, used up all their savings and moved their five-member family into a one-bedroom apartment. It was the only way they could afford private treatments.
Sadly, after all that sacrifice, Jacob will no longer be eligible for the provincially funded program. He just turned 5. “That breaks our heart,” says his mother, Heather Bourdon.
It’s not just parents who are worried. School boards are concerned, too. Schools, already faced with shrinking special education budgets, wonder how they will be able to fund the staff necessary to support an influx of autistic students who haven’t had the intensive training.
“It’s never too late to correct a mistake,” says Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, who wants the province to reverse its decision.
The government’s response to his concern is not comforting. A spokesperson for the education ministry didn’t indicate whether Ontario would provide school boards with extra funding to properly accommodate special needs kids. He simply noted that “boards are responsible for allocating the funding for programs and services as they are in the best position to determine the needs of their students at the local level.”
That bureaucratese seems to imply that schools will be left to fend for themselves. Which is why unions representing teachers and educational assistants, such as CUPE Ontario, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Federation of Labour, joined parents at a rally at Queen’s Park on Thursday to demand that the government reconsider its position.
While parents of children taken off the waiting list will receive $8,000 and can apply for less-intensive therapies for their children next year, that’s not good enough. To suddenly strip children and families of the hope to which they have clung, sometimes for years, is too cruel a way to save money or find efficiencies.
Kids already on the waiting list and in the program should get the treatment. It’s the right thing to do.