COLUMN: Autism funding cut wrong

The Ontario government has pulled yet another typical announcement from its bag of tricks, this time with autism funding. Touting the budget announcement as an expansion of services, $333 million over five years was promised to fund Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) services. This would reduce wait times for kids five and under, and help guide them to Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy once they are older than five. This sounds like a great announcement. More funding, reduce wait times, help kids. A triple win; except it is anything but.

To pay for this expansion of services, they are cutting services for those older than age five. Those currently on wait lists will get a one-time funding payout of $8,000 to help pay for services once. That is not expansion, it is realignment. It places further stress on a system already struggling to deal with children with autism in Ontario.

The most critical part of treatment of a child with autism is proper diagnosis. The Liberals planned robbing Peter to pay Paul of the system ignores the fact that many do not get a proper diagnosis on the Autism spectrum until well after age five.

Parents and children go through the gambit of trying to fit their square-peg child into the round hole of diagnosis. Some children are diagnosed as being Attention-Deficit, Hyper-Active (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), only after realizing there is more to it. Depending on the type and severity of the autism, which is a broad umbrella diagnosis, there are other tests that children have to wait for years for. Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) testing, which is considered the test to determine if a child is on the spectrum, is expensive. This is a further wait, and further away from that five year old cut off the new Liberal plan imposes.  In Eastern Ontario, it can take up to a year to get an ADOS test done.

To receive ABA therapy, the wait list is in upwards of nine months. Once your wait is over, the child receives eight weeks of therapy and then back to the wait list for more. For some kids on the spectrum, eight weeks is not enough time to get them to open up to doing the therapy. Bouncing on and off wait lists is not the type of consistency that helps these kids improve. For some parents, they have to go the private route in order to help their children. Privately these services are astronomically expensive. Others go without, or try to manage on their own with family support, and support in the schools. Schools, which already are underfunded in special education, and are the first place school boards cut from when balancing the budget.

The Liberal plan has taken a system that is already dysfunctional and not meeting children’s needs, and making it worse. Cutting from older children in need to fund younger children in need helps no one.

If the Liberals want to increase funding for under-five children, that’s great. They should also increase funding for children between five and 18 who are in need. To do that, cut from somewhere else. A good place to start would be with one of the many departments that have come under fire in the last ten years for mismanagement of tax dollars.

The litmus test for those departments should be easy. Ask if funding a bailout for a downtown Toronto office building project is more important than funding autism therapies for children. If yes, fund the bail out. If not, fund kids needing autism therapy. Do this in each department and the funding shortfalls should be fixed in no time.

Better yet, have the Ontario Liberal Party hold million dollar fundraisers to raise money for autism therapies. The Liberals are good at raising the millions for election campaigns, they should try raising money for the common good for a change.

Expanding autism therapy program funding in young children is a good thing. Cutting autism therapy program funding from older children needing services to pay for it is a bad thing. If the feckless leaders in Queen’s Park can’t realize that, many kids will struggle for it.