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Local autism services in limbo as province vows to change course

It’s still too early to say what, if any impact the province’s course reversal on autism programs will have on KidsAbility’s recent announcement it would be laying off 20 to 25 workers at year’s end.

The Ford government’s mea culpa on its handling of the autism file is the latest in a protracted battle between the province and parents of autistic children.

In February, the provincial government announced changes to the Ontario Autism Program, opting to give money directly to families based on age and income, rather than to regional service providers such as KidsAbility. The decision to do so instead of a needs-based funding model sparked a multitude of protests across the province, including in Elmira.

KidsAbility, which serves approximately 8,000 kids a year across Waterloo Region and Guelph-Wellington, had provincial funding cut by 25 per cent in April. This forced the organization to lay off nine workers at the time – eight therapists and a social worker – which officials said is a direct result of the provincial changes. This latest move, which will see approximately half of the autism staff laid off at the start of next year, is yet another impact of the fee-for-service model.

“Our board has elected to go forward with a model that unfortunately required us to lay off 50 per cent of our autism staff because every expenditure we have now in the autism program has to be offset by families paying for the service, either through their childhood budget or through another source of income that they might have,” explained Linda Kenny, chief executive officer at KidsAbility.

The layoffs have an impact not only on families in need of these services, said Kenny, but also discourage students and skilled workers from pursuing a career in autism therapy.

“We’re not sure what those job opportunities will be for those staff in the future. We’re finding that many of them are walking away from the profession or they’re deciding to retrain and do something else because this is difficult and challenging work,” said Kenny. “It’s highly specialized work, and we need to actually recognize the skills that passionate, caring people bring to their profession.”

They may have a change of luck, however, as new Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith announced on Monday at a press conference in Toronto that the government will design a new funding program based on needs.

“My message to families of children and youth with autism is, we have heard you, and we are taking action,” said Smith in a release. “Our government is committed to a needs-based program that provides children and youth with the supports they need to thrive.”

The program will work on a $600 million budget, he said.

A spokesperson for KidsAbility noted that it was too early to reconsider the layoffs until more details were announced, however.

This would replace the controversial original plan that saw caps on spending as families with children under age six would receive up to $20,000 a year with a lifetime maximum of $140,000. Children over six year of age were eligible for up to $5,000 a year, with the cap at $55,000.

Autism is a developmental disorder with a wide range of symptoms from mild to severe, and intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 annually.

Jennifer Beckett, a Waterloo parent and part of the Waterloo Region Alliance Against Autism Funding Changes, was one of the many parents vocal about her disapproval of the original plan. She called it a one-size-fits-all approach that would end up adequately serving very few families.

“It’s like eyeglasses: if they give everybody the same pair of glasses, for some kids, it’ll be just the right amount –they’ll be able to see with them no problem; other kids didn’t need glasses at all. And other kids still can’t see because the glasses are nowhere near strong enough to what they need to function and have a good life,” said Beckett.

Her nine-year-old son having attended KidsAbility, she noted that the organization has been instrumental in shaping his development from a young age.

“For us, KidsAbility was a huge partner for our family altogether,” said Beckett. “They helped my son in so many ways – from being not being able to speak, or manage toilet training, all of that… They helped him with all of the skills he needed to be successful at school.

“So I’m just really sad for all the families who are currently in service there, who know their service will end unless something changes with the government plan. New families don’t even have that opportunity to go there.”

While the province as vowed to take a new course, parents are still waiting to find out what that will mean. The government said that the new plan would not be fully rolled out until April of 2020.

 

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