TORONTO — Ontario has enrolled 888 children with autism in core therapies, adding just 30 to the government’s revamped program since April, but insists it will meet its goal of enrolling 8,000 children here by the end of the fall.
Government officials, speaking on the merits at a technical briefing, recently said that movement has been slow in recent months due to a new admissions process that, at the end of July, is now operational, and they believe those numbers will begin to grow exponentially. .
But they are baffled by a relatively low response rate to letters they sent to families inviting them to register with the independent child care organization, the first step in a new process for children to receive therapy funded by the government.
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 voter turnout.
“Part of the reason is that everyone has lost confidence,” she said in an interview. “It’s four years later and there’s still no schedule.”
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The Progressive Conservative government announced in early 2019 that it would “wipe out the waiting list,” offering families either $20,000 or $5,000 to pay for therapy, depending on the child’s age.
But parents were furious and staged waves of protests because intensive care can cost up to $90,000 a year. Government funding was too little to mean anything meaningful to the neediest children, and services to help teach basic skills should be determined by need, not age, they said.
The government eventually abandoned the program and went back to the drawing board. The next minister on file 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 being fully operational next April.
Merrilee Fullerton is now the third children, community and social services minister in four years and said the roll-out of the needs-based program was “going well”.
“I strongly encourage families to RSVP and register,” she wrote in a statement. “We have a large team dedicated to supporting families through this process and we are all working together to ensure continued progress.”
There are over 54,000 children enrolled in the program and waiting for basic services. The autistic community has protested the delays in launching the program saying “50,000 is not OK”. Some of these children have been waiting for seven years.
But the government disputes that allocation, saying the number does not represent the waiting list because around 40,000 children have received something. This includes one-time interim payments and a school entrance program, but many families say what their children need are basic clinical services.
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About 600 families have been enrolled in a pilot phase of the new core clinical services program starting in March 2021, and by the end of April 2022 the number has grown to 858. There are also children receiving therapy who have received grandparents from the previous liberal program. .
The government has sent around 6,300 letters to families, officials said, urging them to register with Access OAP, the new admissions portal. They go in order of records, meaning they start with children who first sought therapy as early as 2015.
Another 5,000 letters should be sent at the end of August. But so far, the response has been less than officials had anticipated.
Fewer than 1,700 families responded to the letter and registered with Access OAP, officials said. The next step is for Access OAP to invite families to take part in an interview to determine their child’s level of need, and almost 300 have been sent.
Of the 300 children, 30 were enrolled in basic clinical services, officials said.
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Officials say they see an uptick in registrations when they contact families who didn’t respond to the letter and note that it’s summer and people are busy. But, they acknowledge, with some children waiting since 2015 or possibly longer, they may no longer need therapy.
Monique Taylor, the longtime NDP spokeswoman on the file, said she heard from someone whose child was 17 and had just received one of the letters.
“Families are obviously disheartened,” she said.
“They say, ‘Well, this isn’t going to do anything for me, so why bother?’ I think it is the government’s duty to follow up with families to find out why and then continue to send letters so that families who will be eligible can actually apply.
Brandt of the Ontario Autism Coalition said the government needs to be much more transparent to build trust in the community.
“(The host ministry or agency) needs to do some kind of community outreach to let them know what’s going on,” she 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.
© 2022 The Canadian Press