Slow progress in rolling out Ontario Autism Program; officials insist they are on target
Ontario has enrolled 888 children with autism in basic therapies – adding just 30 to the government’s revamped program since April – but insists it will meet its goal of enrolling 8,000 children by the end of the year. ‘fall.
Government officials, speaking on the merits at a technical briefing, recently said movement had been slow in recent months due to a new admissions process which, at the end of July, is now operational , and they think those numbers will start to grow exponentially. .
But they are bewildered by a relatively low response rate to letters they have sent to families inviting them to register with the independent childcare organization, the first step in a new process for children to benefit from government-funded therapy.
Angela Brandt, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said the government need only look to its history with the autism program to explain the lower-than-expected 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 program. »
The Progressive Conservative government announced in early 2019 that it would « wipe out the waiting list » by giving families either $20,000 or $5,000 to pay for therapy, depending on the child’s age.
But the parents were furious and staged waves of protests because intensive therapy can cost up to $90,000 a year. Government funding was too low to amount to anything meaningful for the most needy children and services to help teach basic skills should be determined by need, not age, they said.
The government eventually scrapped the program and went back to the drawing board. The next minister on the file then announced a new needs-based program with a doubled budget, but conceded in December 2019 that it would be phased in over two years instead of being fully operational the following April.
RELATED: Parents of Autistic Children Call for More Support from Ford Government
Merrilee Fullerton is now the third Minister for Children, Community and Social Services in four years, and said the rollout of the needs-based program is « going well ».
« I strongly encourage families to respond to their invitations and register, » she wrote in a statement. « We have a large dedicated team to support families through this process, and we are all working to ensure continued progress. »
There are more than 54,000 children registered in the program and waiting for basic services. The autism community protested the delays in rolling out the program saying « 50,000 is not OK ». Some of these children have been waiting for seven years.
But the government disputes this framing, saying the number does not represent the waiting list because around 40,000 children have received something. This includes interim one-time payments and a school entry program, but many families say what their children really need are basic clinical services.
About 600 families have been enrolled in a pilot phase of the new basic 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 benefited from grandfathering 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 listing, which means 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 participate in an interview to determine their child’s level of need, and nearly 300 of them have been sent.
Of those 300 children, 30 have been enrolled in basic clinical services, officials said.
Officials say they are seeing an increase in registrations when they contact families who have not responded to the letter and note that it is summer and people are busy. But, they admit, with some children who have been waiting since 2015 or possibly longer, they may not even need the therapy anymore.
Monique Taylor, the NDP’s longtime spokeswoman on the file, said she heard from someone whose child was 17 and she had just received one of the letters.
“Families are obviously discouraged,” she said.
« They’re like, ‘Well, this isn’t going to do anything for me, so why should I bother?’ I think it is incumbent on the government to follow up with families to find out the reason and then continue to send out letters so 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 with the community.
« (The host department or agency) needs to do some sort 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 happening to the (Ontario Autism Program) and because this government doesn’t share what’s going on, the community doesn’t trust them.