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Canada Ontario government to reverse direction on autism program and provide families with needs-based support

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.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government will reverse its direction on the province’s autism program and provide families with needs-based support, after months of protests from parents and an internal review that called for an immediate reset of its strategy.

Todd Smith, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, announced on Monday that the government will move to design a funding program based on the needs of individual children. The new program will work within a $600-million budget, Mr. Smith told reporters at a press conference in Toronto.

“It’s clear to me that we didn’t get the redesign right the first time. I’m here to tell you we will now,” he said.

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The Globe and Mail first reported on the new direction after it obtained an e-mail about the plan on Sunday sent by Mr. Smith’s chief of staff, Sarah Letersky, to the government’s autism advisory panel.

For families, the change, within to-be-determined parameters, could mean their children receive greater access to therapy services. This is a change from the Progressive Conservative government’s current plan, which sees families receive a set amount of funding based on their child’s age. That program, announced earlier this year, was met with outrage from families whose funding for autism services for children with complex needs would be significantly cut. Some said they faced the prospect of their children returning to school full-time in the fall and regressing because their government funding had been cut by tens of thousands of dollars.

It is yet to be determined if the new plan will bring back full funding for these families, but autism advocates are hopeful children will receive the therapy they need. The government said the new program won’t be fully rolled out till April, 2020.

Mr. Smith apologized to families for the anxiety his government has caused with changes announced in February that would have cut their funding.

“I am committed to getting this right. We are certainly sorry for the anxiety this has caused parents across Ontario,” he said.

The PCs’ change in direction comes after an internal review of changes to Ontario’s autism program called for an immediate reset, saying the Ford government purposely spread misinformation about the costs and the backlog of children waiting for treatment to justify a funding model that would leave families “destitute.”

Former minister of community and social services Lisa MacLeod had said the PCs’ original plan would clear a backlog of 23,000 children awaiting treatment. Under the previous Liberal government plan, children diagnosed with autism would come off the waitlist and receive funding with no limits.

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The review, prepared by Toronto-area Progressive Conservative MPP Roman Baber and obtained by The Globe through an unnamed source, suggested a needs-based program to “treat as many children as possible given the capacity and monetary limitations of the program.” The report was addressed to Mr. Ford and Dean French, Mr. Ford’s former chief of staff who recently resigned amid a patronage scandal.

Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a member of the government’s autism advisory panel, said in an interview on Sunday that the change in direction will be a relief to thousands of families.

“On the one hand, this is welcome news. On the other hand, it didn’t have to be like this. We have just lost a year and families have gone through an incredible amount of pain and anxiety and suffering,” she said.

Under the change in direction, an autism advisory panel that had been created by the government will develop a needs-based program within the $600-million budget and recommend it to the minister. In the previous plan, there was a discussion about a possible top-up based on an individual needs-assessment. (The fixed budget will continue while a new program is being designed, according to Ms. Letersky’s e-mail.)

“This, to me, signals the beginning of the end of the Ford-MacLeod plan,” Ms. Kirby-McIntosh said.

Mr. Smith also announced another up-to-six-month extension for children currently receiving therapy under the old system.

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Michael Coteau, a Liberal MPP and the former minister responsible for the autism file, said in a statement that parents had their “lives thrown upside-down by Premier Doug Ford’s misguided and flawed changes to the Ontario Autism Program.”

He added: “Now, at long last, the government appears to finally be reversing course, at least in part.”

The government announced in February changes to the autism program that would provide families with a set amount of funding based on age and income, prompting many protests. Families packed the public galleries at Queen’s Park, where some sobbed quietly while others were ejected for shouting at Ms. MacLeod or the Premier.

About a month later, the government backed away from some of its changes, pledging to explore how the program could provide additional support for families based on needs and doubling the funding available to all families to $600-million a year. It also announced an advisory panel in May that would make recommendations on changes to the program. The panel is expected to submit its report by the end of the summer.

Ms. MacLeod was demoted in a recent cabinet shuffle to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.

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