Changes to autism-treatment funding draw protesters to legislature

Protest over autism funding

A provincial plan to shift autism funding from individual families to group settings drew about 250 protesters to the legislature Wednesday, many of them parents who say the measure would be bad for their children.

The crowd included a busload of people who travelled from the mainland for the event.

A similar system for treating autism in Ontario has been “a disaster” for children, said Louise Witt of the Autism Support Network. “Already clogged waitlists have now been replaced with even bigger waitlists for children waiting for treatment,” she said. “We are not going down that road if we can help it.”

Tracey Werry, who has eight- and six-year-old sons with autism, said she gets individual funding to use for “whatever therapies or services we think would be helpful or beneficial.”

“Under the new system, we won’t be able to decide that, from my understanding.”

Instead, there will be a centre or “hub” for treatment that has yet to be fully explained, Werry said.

“We likely won’t be able to keep our same service providers,” she said. “For most families, I’m sure not just mine, it’s taken a while to find what works.”

Werry said what the government is proposing would be a good idea if it were coming in addition to the system already in place.

Current funding is $22,000 for children six and under, and $6,000 for older children, which Werry said reflects an emphasis on early intervention and the fact that the younger group is not in school, with its services.

Kaitlyn Brown, who is autistic herself and has three autistic children, ages eight, six and two, said she uses the funding to bring tutors, behavioral consultants, speech therapists and occupational therapists to her home. “As a parent with three kids, it’s really hard to get to appointments, so having everyone be able to come into my house is super important to me.”

Brown said some children won’t do well in a centre. “It’s noisy, it’s overwhelming, it’s very clinical and that’s not what our kids need,” she said. “They need that individual care and attention.”

Asked about the changes in the legislature in early November, B.C. Children and Family Minister Mitzi Dean said some parents don’t have the capacity or time to set up in-house personal services and manage them — for example, single-parent families where the parent may be working two jobs, or families who have English as a second language who tell the government that they’re struggling.

As well, with individualized funding, “there was no accountability,” said Dean.

For those struggling under the current system, there was no safety net, she said, adding that under the new framework, families will co-create care plans for their children and youth, and will still be offered multi-disciplinary teams.

“They will be working with support to be able to make sure that the needs of their child and youth are met,” said Dean, adding she has heard that children are forced to wait for years for a diagnosis to unlock services.

“Children can’t wait,” the minister said. “We’re going to build a system that responds to the needs of children earlier, so children with autism will continue to receive services.

“Their families will be supported through this transition, and children with other diagnoses and other needs will also get services.”

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