Slow Progress in Implementing Ontario’s Autism Program; officials insist they are on target

Ontario has enrolled 888 children with autism in basic therapies, adding just 30 to the government’s revamped program since April, but insists it will meet its goal of enrolling 8,000 children by the end of the fall.

Government officials, speaking on background at a technical briefing, said recently that movement has been slow in recent months due to a new admissions process that is up and running by the end of July, and they believe those numbers will start to drop. grow exponentially. .

But they are puzzled by a relatively low response rate to letters they have sent to families inviting them to register with the independent intake organization, the first step in the new process for children to receive government-funded therapy.

Angela Brandt, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said the government only needs to look at its history with the autism program to explain the lower-than-expected uptake.

“Part of the reason is that everyone has lost confidence,” he said in an interview. “Four years have passed and there is still no program.”

The Progressive Conservative government announced in early 2019 that it was going to “clean up the waiting list” by giving families $20,000 or $5,000 to pay for therapy, depending on the age of the child.

But parents were furious and staged waves of protests, since intensive care can cost more than $90,000 a year. Government funding was too small to represent anything significant for children with the greatest needs and services to help teach basic skills should be determined by need, not age, they said.

The government eventually scrapped the program and went back to the drawing board. The next minister on the docket then announced a new needs-based program with a doubled budget, but admitted in December 2019 that it would be phased in over two years rather than fully operational by the following April.

Merrilee Fullerton is now the third minister for children, community and social services in four years, and said implementation of the needs-based program was “progressing well”.

“I strongly encourage families to respond to their invitations and sign up,” he wrote in a statement. “We have a large and dedicated team to support families through this process, and we are all working to ensure continued progress.”

There are more than 54,000 children registered in the program and waiting for basic services. The autism community has been protesting delays in the implementation of the program saying “50k is not right”. Some of those children have been waiting for seven years.

But the government questions that framework, saying the number does not represent the waiting list because some 40,000 children have received something. That includes temporary one-time payments and a school entrance program, but many families say what their children really need are basic clinical services.

About 600 families were enrolled in a pilot phase of the new basic clinical services program beginning in March 2021, and by the end of April 2022, the number had grown to 858. There are also children receiving therapy who were sheltered from the Liberal program. previous .

The government has sent some 6,300 letters to families, officials said, inviting them to register with Access OAP, the new intake portal. They go in order of registration, meaning they start with children who first sought therapy in 2015.

Another 5,000 letters are scheduled to go out by the end of August. But so far, the response has been less than officials expected.

Fewer than 1,700 families responded to the letter and signed up for Access OAP, officials said. The next step is for Access OAP to issue invitations for families to participate in an interview to determine their child’s level of need, and nearly 300 of those have already taken place.

Of those 300 children, 30 have been enrolled in basic clinical services, officials said.

Officials say they see an increase in enrollment when they reach out to families who haven’t responded to the letter and note that it’s summer and people are busy. But, they admit, with some children waiting as early as 2015 or possibly longer, they may not even need the therapy anymore.

Monique Taylor, the longtime NDP critic on file, said she heard from someone whose son is 17 and just received one of the letters.

“Families are obviously bummed out,” he said.

“They’re like, ‘Well, this isn’t going to do anything for me, so why would I bother?’ I think it’s up to the government to follow up with families to find out why and then continue to send out letters so that families who will be eligible can apply.”

Brandt of the Ontario Autism Coalition said the government needs to be much more transparent to build trust in the community.

“(The ministry or admissions organization) needs to do some kind of community outreach to let them know what’s going on,” he said.

“There are a lot of people in the community who don’t understand what’s going on with the (Ontario Autism Program) and because this government doesn’t share what’s going on, the community doesn’t trust them.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 13, 2022.

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