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Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod says the higher demand should lead to more service-provider jobs 'in the immediate future.'

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s social services minister is signalling more layoffs to come in the autism services sector after a treatment centre laid off more than 100 people while the government revamps its funding model to offer more choice to parents.

But Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, on Tuesday said she expects service providers will be re-employed once the new system settles in.

Ms. MacLeod said recent changes to the Ontario autism program will ensure that more families receive direct funding for autism services, as opposed to giving money to service providers.

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“We understand the challenges that occur during a transition period can be unsettling, but our intended result is a system that provides more choice to families and parents,” Ms. MacLeod said in a statement.

“As these changes are implemented we anticipate further staffing changes. However, we know these changes will also mean an increased demand for autism-related services as funding is increased and more children come off the wait list.”

The higher demand, Ms. MacLeod said, should lead to more service-provider jobs “in the immediate future.” The first cheques to some families are set to go out this week, Ms. MacLeod’s office said.

The funding changes have already affected one of Ontario’s largest treatment centres for children with disabilities.

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A spokeswoman for ErinoakKids Centre for Treatment and Development said it is eliminating 291 full-time positions, which include front-line staff, senior positions and management. But the centre is bringing 178 people back on nine-month contracts, timed to when the centre’s funding ends next March. The 113 job losses occurred in the suburban cities of Brampton, Mississauga and Oakville, west of Toronto.

“In order for our organization to be able to continue to provide much needed services to children with autism and their families in this new environment, we have had to make some significant staffing reductions,” spokeswoman Jennifer Arnott said in a statement.

Premier Doug Ford repeatedly promised during the election last year that not a single person would lose their job under his government.

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As part of its new autism program, the Progressive Conservative government is moving to give money directly to families to pay for autism therapy, instead of funding the service providers.

The program as originally announced in February would have given each family on the wait list up to $20,000 a year until their child turns age 6, and $5,000 a year until age 18, but families protested, saying those amounts weren’t nearly enough, particularly for kids with severe needs, whose therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year.

Ms. MacLeod eventually backtracked, promising to double the program’s budget to roughly $600-million and to look at how to add needs-based supports. She said her goal has been to remove some 23,000 children from the wait list for autism services over the next 18 months.

NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said Ms. MacLeod should have further consulted with parents before announcing the funding changes.

“I don’t know that we can really trust anything that the Minister says at this point. Her entire rollout of this plan has been a disaster," Ms. Singh told The Globe and Mail.

Carly Eby, co-chair of the autism spectrum disorder committee at the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis, said in an interview that the new funding model creates uncertainty for both families and professionals.

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“The biggest concern that we have right now is that if these layoffs continue … specialists and other people who serve children with autism are going to potentially leave the profession, leave the province, leave the country," she said.

-with a report from The Canadian Press

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