Published June 5, 2024

(Updated) More than 70,000 kids in Ontario seeking publicly funded autism supports

By Allison Jones
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

Updated June 5, 2024 @ 4:35pm

More than 70,000 children are seeking support through the Ontario Autism Program, but fewer than 15,000 of them are getting funding for core therapies, the province's Financial Accountability Office said in a report Wednesday.

The Progressive Conservative government has more than doubled the budget for the Ontario Autism Program, now at $720 million, but that is funding just a few thousand more children for core services than the program under the former Liberal government in 2018.

Ontario Autism Coalition president Alina Cameron said the government has somehow doubled the budget and made the program worse.

"They built something that only services one in five kids, and they want the community to celebrate this. When you look at it from our perspective, most children are not going to be receiving care anytime soon," she said.

"If they had only invested in the program that had existed instead of blowing it up, there'd be way more kids getting what they needed right now."

According to a previous report from the FAO, about 10,365 children were receiving needs-based therapy in 2018-19, but the current government stopped enrolling children into core therapy as it redesigned a new program in 2019.

It was forced to go back to the drawing board when families said its new program would not meet the needs of most children, and only started enrolling children in its new program in 2022. 

The government's justification in 2019 for scrapping the Liberals' program was that there was a wait list of 23,000 kids. That has now more than doubled. Families under the Liberal program said they were waiting two or three years for access to therapy, but families in the past few years have reported much longer waits.

Not all children registered in the program are waiting for core services – which funds applied behaviour analysis, speech language pathology, occupational therapy and mental health services – but the Ontario Autism Coalition says most do need those services at varying levels.

At the end of last year, there were 70,176 children registered in the program, the FAO reported Wednesday.

Figures obtained by The Canadian Press through a freedom-of-information request show that by the end of March, 14,886 children were receiving funding for core services. The budget of $720 million would be enough to give 12,629 children full annual funding for core therapy, the FAO said.

That number also doesn't necessarily represent how many children are actually receiving publicly funded therapy, Cameron of the Ontario Autism Coalition said, as there are many families with money in hand but nowhere to spend it because of a lack of available therapy providers.

The NDP asked Children, Community and Social Services Minister Michael Parsa in question period Wednesday about the percentage of children receiving therapy and he touted the success of the program.

"After the previous government, supported by the NDP, failed the people of this province, it was this government, under the leadership of Premier Ford, that said we’re not going to stand with the status quo," he said. 

"This program that we have in place now is built by the community for the community."

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the government has made a mess of a program it vowed to fix, and could help more children if it wasn't spending $225 million to get out of a contract with The Beer Store early to put beer and wine in corner stores.

"They have the money for that, but they don't have the money to spend to get kids off the autism waiting list or more educational assistants for our kids with special needs in schools," she said.

Liberal critic John Fraser said the government needs to listen to families on what needs to be fixed with the program.

"They've increased the amount of money, but the waitlist keeps growing," he said. "So are they actually doing the right thing? I mean, it's one thing to say, 'I'm spending all this money,' but if a child isn't getting the services that she needs ... it's not benefitting that family."

The Ontario Autism Coalition has raised concerns about the program's determination of needs assessment. It involves families spending up to four hours on a phone call with autism program administrators telling them about their child's needs, and that information is then used to assess how much funding they should get.

But the process repeats annually, and the document obtained by The Canadian Press through a freedom-of-information request shows that more than 26 per cent of the completed determination of needs assessments are re-assessments.

Doing the assessments annually is unnecessary, Cameron said, as once a child is in therapy their provider does an assessment every six months, and the situation is preventing new children from being enrolled as it takes up program administrators' time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2024.

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