Barrett hosts round table on autism program

Barrett hosts round table on autism program
SIMCOE—Residents of Haldimand and Norfolk gathered outside Toby Barrett’s office on Friday, March 1, 2019 to protest changes to the Ontario Autism Program. The program is designed to get kids off the waitlist for services, but parents say they will be unable to make up the funding shortfall, threatening their children’s future. —Haldimand Press photo by Kaitlyn Clark.

By Kaitlyn Clark

The Haldimand Press

HAGERSVILLE—MPP Toby Barrett met with 14 people on Thursday, March 14, 2019 at the Hagersville Legion who are concerned about the upcoming changes to the Ontario Autism Program (OAP).

Barrett said that the overarching concerns were:

1)         The maximum funding cap of $20,000 per year under age six and $5,000 per year after with a family income below $55,000.

2)         The need for coordination between the three involved ministries of Children and Youth Services, Education, and Health and Long-Term Care.

3)         The quick implementation of the program, which was announced February 6 and will launch April 1.

Attendees included parents and family members of autistic children, along with autism service providers who work with children from the area.

Attendee Ashley Hobbs of Simcoe, who has two children on the spectrum, said it was “highly emotional and had many in tears” as attendees explained their concerns. She said the biggest concern was that funding is age and income based instead of needs based: “As such, children at the more severe end of the spectrum who require intensive therapy … will be left receiving a fraction of the therapy hours that they need.”

She continued to say that the government response to offer more training for teachers in handling autistic students is not the type of solution needed, “Teachers are not therapists. Teachers already have their hands full.”

Caledonia resident Aaron Hinks, whose two-year-old son has autism, agrees. He said that the income sliding scale means that his son would receive only about $4,500 a year, despite his age or that he has been quoted at needing $71,500/year in therapy by a Hamilton specialist. When asked if his family would be able to handle the new program, Hinks said, “We’re going to have to. We’ve taken out a massive line of credit, which should last us for about a year. Then we’re going to have to remortgage our house. We’re going to scrape by, but I don’t imagine anyone else being able to do this.”

Hinks said that if nothing changes, his family may have to take even more drastic measures: “One (idea) is to move out to Alberta, because it’s still needs-based there.”

Ultimately, Hobbs is concerned “that the new OAP is too much, too quick”, leaving parents and service providers “in this scary limbo of not knowing what happens from here … such as whether or not (Haldimand Norfolk REACH) will even be able to sustain continued therapy services.”

Hinks added that the new OAP is still “a work in progress” and is concerned that potential delays in funding being released will put his son even further behind: “Nobody really understands how it will all affect things. (The government) needs to take 12 to 18 months to consult parents and service providers.”

Hobbs said she is hoping for a needs-based, inter-ministerial approach that would include new services, such as speech therapy, and see autism “treated under OHIP as any other health issue”.

Leah Kocmarek, who organized the recent protest outside Barrett’s office about these changes, added, “We generally spoke about ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) being a medical diagnosis and yet the treatment is not recognized as such, and the pittance we may get from the government is just not enough … We hope this report (Barrett) said he and his staff would write will accurately reflect our concerns and make an impact on Lisa (MacLeod, Minister).”

Hobbs, Hinks, and Kocmarek all said they appreciated Barrett taking the time to host the meeting and attempt to understand their concerns.

“We are doubtful, however, that it will have much impact due to politics and his requirement to stick to party lines,” said Hobbs. “We do remain hopeful though … (for) the development of a new plan that works to adequately support the varying needs of all autistic children across the spectrum.”

On how the meeting went, Barrett said, “Personally, I felt it was of value for everyone who attended … to have the local provincial representative, which is me, document everything, take their feedback, concerns, suggestions, recommendations, and move it forward to the most appropriate ministries.”

When asked if there were any particular solutions that he would be pushing for, Barrett said that they were still in the process of writing up the recommendations and therefore did not have any prepared wording, but that “we have to deal with the concerns around funding, need to slow things down a bit, and make sure there is coordination”.

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