When Stephanie Ridley told her son’s principal this week that he would be returning to school full-time in about a month, they shared a joint fear: “What are we going to do?”
It will be radical change for Ewan, 7, who is severely autistic and attends school in Burlington, Ont., only twice a week. He spends the rest of his time receiving intensive treatment at a behavioural-therapy centre, where he’s learning to trace the letters of his name and putting four- or five-word sentences together using software.
The Ridleys cannot afford Ewan’s therapy bills, and changes to the autism program recently announced by the Progressive Conservative government will mean the $70,000 they receive a year will be cut to about $5,000 annually.
School boards, meanwhile, are bracing for how they will manage. Some already spend more on special needs than they receive from the province, and don’t have additional educational assistants. Carla Pereira, a spokeswoman for the Peel District School Board, said the changes have prompted boards to “consider the impact of children attending” full-time.
The changes to the autism program take effect April 1 and will mean families receive a set amount of funding based on age and income. The government says its goal is to clear a backlog of 23,000 children waiting for treatment, within 18 months.
Asked this week what steps the government will take to accommodate autistic children in schools, Education Minister Lisa Thompson did not directly address the question.
“We are working with our school boards to make sure our proper supports are in place for the classroom,” Ms. Thompson told reporters. “I am absolutely committed to a safe and supportive classroom.”
This does little to calm Ms. Ridley’s fears. She said her son is entering a “black hole" after being on a wait-list for therapy for three years and then finally receiving it since 2016.
“I fear that after all this hard work, it disappears, because he goes back into his own little hole,” she said.
She added: “These changes to the OAP [Ontario Autism Program] are detrimental to the foundation of skills these kids need to succeed in the education system."
Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, declined to do an interview with The Globe and Mail.
She defended the changes to the autism program in the legislature this week, as parents of autistic children staged protests at constituency offices and attended Question Period to express their frustration.
Ms. MacLeod said the decision to change the program “stands.” The program will now be funded based on age and household income, with families earning up to $250,000 eligible for funding. But only those with a household income of $55,000 or less will be eligible for the full amount.
Until age 6, children will be eligible for $20,000 a year; after that, they can receive up to $5,000 a year until age 18. But parents say some treatments cost up to $80,000 a year.
“Our goal in the ministry is to ensure that we support as many children as possible," Ms. MacLeod told reporters this week.
An Ottawa mother, who did not want her name used because of the backlash from advocates, said her children have languished on the wait-list for years, and while the money may not be enough for her eldest son who she described as “profoundly disabled,” it will provide some care.
Her oldest son, who is 8, attends school for 2 1/2 hours a day and is in a class with five other children, a teacher and two educational assistants.
The previous Liberal government attempted in 2016 to cut off autism funding for intensive therapy for children aged five or older, a move that was widely criticized. The government backed down. (Research indicates that intensive therapy at an early age is more effective and children have better outcomes).
Kristen Ellison, who lives in Cobourg, Ont., said she regrets fighting that old plan, because the money being provided by the new government is not enough and children with autism are worse off under the changes. (Ms. Ellison and Ms. Ridley were among the parents who attended Queen’s Park this week to protest the changes).
“It would have been better if I did nothing,” Ms. Ellison said. “My son would have been sacrificed, but at least everybody after him, all those kids under the age of 5, would have got evidence-based therapy.”
Ms. Ellison said her son, eight-year-old Carter Pierrard, has made some gains in intensive therapy, including making eye contact.
He spends half his day at school and the other half in intensive therapy. Ms. Ellison said Carter will return to school full-time in April when his autism funding is cut, and she fears that “he’s going to get left behind.”
“All of these kids who got varying levels of therapy … they’re all going to school and they’re all not ready and there’s no money,” she said.