Ontario autism advocates are pushing the Progressive Conservative government to adopt a review by one of its own members that called for a full reset of the autism program and validated their concerns that Queen’s Park was spreading misinformation.
The internal review, obtained last week by The Globe and Mail through an anonymous source, said the government’s tone on the autism file has been “less than ideal” and a reset is required that is “predicated on accurate and non-confrontational messaging.”
The Globe first reported on Friday that Toronto-area MPP Roman Baber found that the government knowingly inflated the number of children waiting for therapy to 23,000 in order to justify its changes to the autism program; that figure was reiterated by Premier Doug Ford last week.
The report was addressed to Mr. Ford and Dean French, Mr. Ford’s former chief of staff who recently resigned, and said the two men requested Mr. Baber review the program. It was also shared with an advisory panel announced by the government in May to make recommendations on a funding model based on children’s needs, rather than their age and their family’s income level.
“This has been the toughest and most damaging file of our first year in office,” Mr. Baber wrote in a June 13 report.
The review immediately drew support from autism advocates who said the government took a combative approach with families and misled the public.
Ottawa parent Kate Logue has two children on the autism spectrum and was nervous that the funding she received was in jeopardy under the government’s plan to change the program.
“It’s just so refreshing seeing this level of advocacy from a PC MPP,” said Ms. Logue, who is also a regional organizer for the Ontario Autism Coalition.
“It’s extremely validating that [Mr.] Baber has acknowledged the government’s spread of misinformation and awful tone in communicating with parents,” she added.
Mr. Baber declined to comment when reached by The Globe on Monday.
His review was made public on the weekend and shared widely on social media. It is unclear who released the report.
In a series of tweets on Sunday, Mr. Baber said that the sweeping changes he recommended would mean that no child would have to wait for funding in five years, because the system would have built up enough capacity so children would be assessed immediately and receive therapy based on their needs.
Mr. Baber said in his report that the program should be needs-based to “treat as many children as possible given the capacity and monetary limitations of the program.” He also recommended that a prerequisite of funding would be a diagnosis by a developmental pediatrician or clinical child psychologist, not a family doctor, and that funding be capped at 30 hours a week.
“The goal was a viable and cost-effective needs-based plan, which treats as many kids as possible,” Mr. Baber wrote on Twitter. “Kids matter, no one else.”
In February, the Progressive Conservative government announced changes to the autism program that would provide families with a set amount of funding based on age and income. Lisa MacLeod, the former minister of community and social services, said it would clear a backlog of 23,000 children waiting for treatment.
The move was met with outrage from families whose funding for autism services for children with complex needs would be significantly cut. They held protest rallies across the province and packed the public galleries at Queen’s Park.
Facing intense pressure, the government backed away from some of the changes a month later. It pledged to explore how the program could provide additional support for families based on needs, and doubled the funding available to all families to $600-million a year.
Ms. MacLeod was demoted in a cabinet shuffle last month to tourism, culture and sport.
Mr. Baber’s report said that a repeated assertion by the government that 23,000 children were on a list waiting for services was “unverified and is likely inaccurate.”
He wrote that it was really a combination of several lists that the ministry compiled from regional providers of autism services. “It is incorrect to say that 23,000 kids are languishing without treatment," he wrote, adding that families have registered their children with more than one service provider or could be back on the waiting list after receiving a block of therapy.
Todd Smith, formerly minister of economic development, has taken over the portfolio for children, community and social services. He declined to comment on Monday. Kayla Iafelice, a spokeswoman for the Premier’s Office, said on Monday that Mr. Baber’s suggestions are welcomed.
Nancy Silva-Khan, a spokeswoman for Autism Advocacy Ontario, said that the group was thankful for the report because it “affirmed that MPP MacLeod had misrepresented the autism community.”
She said that while she appreciated that Mr. Baber recommended a needs-based model, the government should look beyond supporting only one type of therapy and allow families to access other treatments, including speech language and occupational therapy (those services are currently not funded by the province’s autism program).
Still, Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a member of the government’s advisory panel, said Mr. Baber’s report validates a lot of what the autism community had been saying for months.
“It sets forth a realistic alternative that the government should look at,” she said.
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