TORONTO — Ontario's social services minister opened the door Thursday to giving more funding to children with more severe autism, which an advocacy group described as a "huge concession'' in the province's controversial plan.
The new program announced last month by Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod sparked waves of protests by parents, who said the fact that the funding wouldn't be needs based — instead, dependent only on age and family income — would mean kids would be left without access to the levels of therapy they need.
MacLeod said Thursday that the past month has been "incredibly emotional'' for families, and she has heard their concerns.
"Parents were right when they said that autism is a spectrum and that there are different needs for children on the spectrum,'' she said. "So for the next few months I'll take their input to best assess how we better support those with complex needs and provide additional supports for them.''
Oh my God, she heard us.Laura Kirby-McIntosh
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, the president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said the devil will be in the details, but called the news a very positive development.
"Oh my God, she heard us,'' Kirby-McIntosh said. "I heard a commitment to move to a system that is needs-based and that doesn't simply give everybody the same amount regardless of need, so that's a huge concession.''
After a month of sustained protests, emotional outbursts from parents observing question period, and the minister receiving threats — one person was charged by Ottawa police — this announcement takes the temperature down, Kirby-McIntosh said.
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MacLeod, until now, had been firm in her message that the plan would go ahead as is, and that there was no room to provide additional funding. Next year's budget will be at least $331 million, and she said Thursday that she was prepared to put more money into the program to provide the new needs-based supports, but couldn't say yet how much more.
"We're prepared to go further to support those enhancements,'' she said.
MacLeod also announced she is eliminating income testing for the program, so all kids under six diagnosed as on the spectrum will receive $20,000 and kids over six will receive $5,000. The plan as originally designed would only give those maximum amounts to families making under $55,000.
Intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year and many parents with kids already in government-funded therapy have said they will be unable to cover the difference to keep their kids in full-time therapy.
Our priority has been and always will be to eliminate the wait list.Lisa MacLeod
Kids currently receiving government-funded therapy will have their contracts extended by six months, MacLeod said.
"While we empathize with them, our priority has been and always will be to eliminate the wait list,'' she said. The government has said there are 23,000 kids on the wait list.
Families had also been asking for more services to qualify under the program and MacLeod said Thursday that speech language pathology, physiotherapy and occupational therapy will now be included.
NDP critic Monique Taylor criticized the announcement of new consultations with parents less than two weeks before the plan starts April 1.
"They should have done the work before they made the announcement and put the policy in place,'' she said. "They've put families in chaos for the last month and a half for no reason.''
Michelle Costa has been paying out of pocket for therapy for her five-year-old son, who has been on the waiting list for nearly two years. She said she is "cautiously optimistic'' about the changes, but giving kids over six a smaller amount of money than younger children still amounts to an age cut-off.
"Until that major issue is addressed I think people will still remain worried,'' she said.
Kristen Ellison, whose eight-year-old son is currently in government-funded therapy, said the additional six months is a relief. She said she still isn't sure she trusts MacLeod to introduce needs-based changes, but wants to work with her on them.
"If she were to respond to my email or take my call and say, 'Kristen, I'd love to have you come to the table. I want to understand families better,' I would be there in a heartbeat,'' Ellison said.
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