Ford government cancels changes to autism program after wide-spread protests and lay-offs

The flat rate of $5,000 a year would have been for everyone.

In an early February interview, an Ontario father disclosed his struggle supporting a son with autism who functions at the level of a two-year old. He was speaking not long after Ford announced changes to Ontario’s autism program.

His non-verbal son is prone to violent outbursts and, at the time of the interview, gave his father a concussion.

For the support of his child, the man could receive up to $92,000 a year from the government. This allowed him to pay for 32 hours a week of therapy.

At the time, under what were expected to be the Ford government’s shake-up to the autism program, the loving parent would directly receive $5,000 a year. Rather than 32 hours a week, 90 hours of therapy would end up having to cover the whole year.

The Ford government’s announcement that they would disband the Liberal’s needs-based system, would mean children with severe autism would be funded the same as the high-functioning.

The flat rate of $5,000 a year would be for everyone.

The father was worried that if his son were to “los[e] this autism therapy” he would never “be able to maintain a job or take care of himself, or even use the washroom.” There would simply be “no qualified person to teach him any of this.”

With the Ford administrations announcement that they would be pulling back on their original plans for age-based flat rate funding, some Ontario parents might rest easier.

Today, the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, Todd Smith, spoke to the press of plans to implement a needs-based system like the one handed down to the Ford government.

“Our government is committed to a needs-based program that provides children and youth with the support they need to thrive,” said Smith.

When the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, announced in February 2019 that the old autism program was being overhauled, then Minister Lisa Mcleod (demoted last week) explained the cuts were aimed at tackling long and painful waiting lists.

According to the Ford government, under the former Liberal system of 23,000 children diagnosed with autism, only 8,400 were receiving therapy.

Yet, in a report released internally—leaked today—by Conservative MPP Roman Baber, Ford’s estimate of 23,000 were found to be “unverified” and “likely inaccurate.”

“There is no one wait list – that is a fiction,” Baber wrote, going on to explain how Ford’s policy decision would leave families “destitute.”

Upon the announcement of revamps, protests were launched across Ontario with many signs reading “Autism doesn’t end at Ford,” and “Autism does not end at 5”—with references to the sharp cuts in funding—about $15,000 a year—to be experienced by families after their children passed the age of five.

In April, it was announced that funding would be increased for the province’s autism program by $278 million. The Ford government also doubled the funding into burdened diagnostic hubs, adding an additional $2.75 million.

Yet, protests continued into June when one of Ontario’s largest centres for treatment cut 291 full time employees. The money that would have gone to institutions providing care was in the process of being refunnelled to individuals.

Moreover, for a nine month period, no family was taken off the wait-list for funding. Families were also reporting that they had stopped receiving payments.

In June, Ford did not evince any hints at his intentions to reverse the funding changes, despite the militant resistance.

In response to these protests, he commented, “What boggles my mind: we’re pouring, pouring money into autism, and focused on it, listening to the experts… We’re helping them and they’re protesting? I don’t know. I question that.”

In Minister Smith’s announcement today, he clarified that the government would be waiting on a panel of autism experts until it proceeded to make its next decisions.

NDP MPP Michael Coteau applauded the Ford government’s change of course. However, Couteau emphasized that some “harms” cannot be “undone.”

“[H]undreds of service providers have already lost their jobs. It will take time to restore the system, and I worry that children will continue to languish on wait lists as the damage from Ford’s flawed approach is rectified.”

In similar news this morning, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) documented the loss of two-thirds of the staff at the KidsAbility Centre for Child Development based in Waterloo, which serviced autistic children.

“[Children with autism] need stable, accountable, qualified professionals supported by an agency system rooted in the community,” said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas.

“Frontline workers are being fired, while others won’t stay in their careers working for bottom-basement wages.”