PC's new autism plan doesn't go far enough to help families in need
During last year’s provincial election, the PCs blasted the Liberal government’s plan for autism as being ill-advised and poorly managed. Doug Ford proposed $100 million in additional funding to the Ontario Autism Program, which was $38 million more than the Liberals were promising.
Ford won the election, and his PC government just announced its long-term plan to tackle autism. Did it succeed or fail in meeting its original objective?
Children, Community and Social Services minister Lisa MacLeod announced the massive waiting list of 23,000 children will be eliminated in 18 months. Ontario families will receive up to $140,000 for an autistic child from the ages of two to 18 to use as they see fit for therapy and treatment. An annual cap of up to $20,000 will be in place until the child turns six, which will decrease to $5,000 from therein.
Many parents expressed either disappointment or shock at this announcement. They said the plan fell flat, and wouldn’t help their children get the tools and resources they need to succeed in school — and in life.
I’m in a unique position to discuss this issue.
While my conservative views and activities are fairly well known, my son is also on the autism spectrum. I rarely discuss Andrew’s condition in public. It’s his personal story to tell, and not mine. But I’m going to make an exception.
My wife and I noticed that Andrew wasn’t developing at a normal rate at around 18 months. He was ultimately diagnosed with a triplicate in Chromosome 7, which was related to a severe delay in speech. He was placed, quickly removed, and eventually placed again on the autism spectrum with a moderate diagnosis.
Andrew receives applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy. He has a speech language pathologist, two tutors for academics and a full-time aid for school, among other things. The intensive treatments have worked well, and he continues to grow, develop and improve.
Virtually everything has been paid for with private money. We’re lucky we can handle it. Others haven’t been nearly so fortunate.
To be sure, the forthcoming removal of the waiting list deserves praise. The Liberals handled this situation abysmally, and allowed the problem to grow and fester to a point where many autistic children in Ontario didn’t receive treatment for years, if at all. That’s unacceptable, and MacLeod and Ford did the right thing in eliminating it.
The problem is the financial component.
The cost of private ABA therapy can range between $50,000-$75,000 annually. When you factor in additional components such as speech language pathology, occupational therapy, tutoring and a part-time or full-time aid for school, work or daily living, the yearly costs can potentially exceed $100,000-$125,000.
In milder cases of autism, the capped amount of funding could help in a supplemental fashion. To the vast majority of children who suffer from either moderate or extreme cases of autism, it’s not even a drop in the bucket. Most Ontario families will remain frustrated, worried, heavily in debt and unable to give their children the help they desperately need to properly function in society.
As noted by Autism Speaks Canada, “autism is now the fastest growing and most commonly diagnosed neurological disorder” in our country. An astonishing “1 in 68 children are currently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder,” and the prevalence “has increased over 100% in the last 10 years.”
The Ford government plan for autism, as it currently stands, is a mixed bag — and won’t help de-escalate this unfortunate situation.
Fortunately, there’s time for re-examination. The PCs must ensure more provincial funding is earmarked to families of autistic children struggling to make ends meet. The removal/readjustment of the annual cap would be wise. Tax breaks and/or tax incentives for private therapy and treatment would help. New provincially funded programs for autism should be introduced, and existing programs should be enhanced.
I, like most Conservatives, believe in smaller government, lower taxes, fiscal prudence and more individual rights and freedoms. But we’re also compassionate when it comes to protecting the less fortunate.
This is one of those moments, and they need our help. Please help them, Premier Ford and Minister MacLeod.
Michael Taube, a longtime newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speech writer for former prime minister Stephen Harper.