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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 should reverse its widely criticized approach to funding autism therapy for children, according to an advisory-panel report that lays out significant changes but also warns that annual caps on services families receive are “unavoidable.”

Todd Smith, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, said on Wednesday that the report would serve as the “foundation” for a new autism program, which will not be fully rolled out until next April.

“There’s a lot of things in the report that will take a little bit of time to build out,” Mr. Smith told reporters at Queen’s Park. He later added: “We want to have a sustainable program going forward, so that we don’t have to be back here in a couple of years doing this all over again.”

The panel’s report, released on Wednesday, comes three months after Doug Ford’s government apologized to the families of autistic children for a plan that cut thousands of dollars from the money they receive for therapy.

The 20-member, government-appointed panel made a number of recommendations on a new needs-based program that would fund not only applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy, but also services such as occupational therapy, speech and language pathology and mental-health wellness.

The panel said that waiting lists for some services would be “inevitable” as the government asked it to make recommendations for a program within a fixed budget of $600-million. However, it recommended that the government provide early intervention for children under the age of 6 while they are on the waiting list. Research shows that supports at a younger age can help develop skills and lower costs over the longer term.

To ensure as many children as possible receive autism services, the panel wrote that annual caps “on the amount of individual service received will be unavoidable into the foreseeable future.” It recommended an annual service cap or a discipline-specific service cap that specifies maximum amounts.

Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a member of the panel, said the group hopes the government will form an implementation committee to specify maximum funding amounts, among other items.

Ms. Kirby-McIntosh said she believes that the government will take the panel’s recommendations seriously.

“I’m confident that we’ve positioned ourselves as a community such that [Mr. Smith] knows he’d be a fool not to implement the report in full,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.

Parents packed the public galleries at Queen’s Park and held rallies across the province after 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. (Under the previous Liberal government program, funding was unlimited for children in the program.)

Former minister of children, community and social services Lisa MacLeod had said the government’s plan would clear a backlog of 23,000 children awaiting treatment. But some families said the capped funding – $20,000 a year for children under 6, and $5,000 a year after that – was nowhere near what they needed for therapy, which can cost up to $80,000 a year.

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 their needs and doubling the funding available to all families to $600-million a year. It also announced an advisory panel that would make recommendations on changes to the program.

Ms. MacLeod was subsequently demoted in a cabinet shuffle to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Mr. Smith took over the autism file.

On Wednesday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the report confirmed what critics and the parents of autistic children have been saying all along. She called it “shameful” that the government would not implement the report’s recommendations until well into next year.

“We need a needs-based program. That’s what families deserve, that’s what children deserve. And instead, the government cruelly ripped away services from families,” Ms. Horwath said. “They made things so bad. It was a horrifying thing to watch."

Toronto parent Amy Moledzki, who has two children diagnosed with autism, said she is worried about how she will pay for the services her children require. Her daughter, who is 4, is on the severe end of the autism spectrum.

Ms. Moledzki said that the panel’s recommendation to pay for services, such as occupational therapy, will go a long way in cutting down how much she has to pay out of her own pocket.

“I’m happy with it. Hopefully it can be implemented. That remains to be seen,” she said.

With a report from Jeff Gray

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