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Autism advocates hope for policy change

By Jane Sims, The London Free Press

(File photo)

(File photo)

Samantha Billings is hoping Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is having a change of heart.

Billings, a London parent of a child with autism, has been deeply concerned about proposed changes the provincial government is making to the Ontario Autism Program.

Her daughter Sophia, 4, had been on the waiting list for Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI), a promising early intervention program for youngsters for a year and a half, when the government announced it is removing children from the waiting list at age 5 and, replacing it with $8,000 to pay for private treatment before its new $333-million program is rolled out in 2018.

On Wednesday, Wynne said parents have told her they would benefit from more direct funding, and she says “absolutely there is room to consider” how the best and individual services are provided to children.

Billings said she hopes the concerns of parents, the opposition parties, unions, school boards and autism agencies are being heard.

“My hope is that Kathleen Wynne is actually listening, and has the humility and grace to do the right thing,” she said. “She still has the chance to make the changes that will help these children.”

The Liberal government’s new program would ultimately integrate IBI and Applied Behavioural Analysis, currently in two separate streams, into a flexible service it’s calling enhanced ABA.

But the changes include limiting IBI to children between two and four, as the government says expert advice is to focus on children in that developmental window.

Billings said the changes in the program “was a very large curveball” for her daughter and the rest of the family.

They were told Sophia would have IBI in September, but under the new policy, she is off the list when she turns five that month. Billings said the $8,000 would only pay for a six weeks of treatment for Sophia after her birthday.

“After that she is still on a wait list for ABA, she will still have to wait for therapy,” she said. “We can’t just go from one wait list to another wait list, which is how the new program is working now.”

London New Democrat MPP Peggy Sattler said Wynne’s comments may signal another backtracking by the government in the wake of public pressure.

Already, Wynne’s Liberals have changed direction on seniors’ drug costs, daycare regulations and enrollments at provincial demonstration schools.

“This is another thing we are hopeful they will reverse their position on,” she said.

“Parents have made it very clear that this change could be devastating to them and their families.”

While the government boasted the new program would reach thousands more children, it failed to address the 1,900 children waiting for therapy who are cut off from help, she said.

“It’s a lot to do with marketing and hoping that people don’t read the fine print and understand what the implications are of these decisions the government is making,” Sattler said.

“It does show the power of advocacy, of people getting together and saying this is wrong and the government needs to listen and respond to what people are saying.”

The government says its new program will mean 16,000 more children will receive services — mostly ABA — and that IBI wait times will go from a current average of 2½ years to six months by 2021.

The program is to address thousands of children across the province with autism and autism spectrum disorder, a range of brain disorders characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviours.

jsims@postmedia.com

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