Ontario Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod calls the autism plan “fair, equitable and sustainable." Photo by Michael Swan

Cathy Majtenyi: Ontario takes hard-hearted approach with autism plan

By 
  • March 21, 2019

The Ontario government is advancing further along the road of privatization, this time in the area of autism therapies.

The province provides life-altering treatments for some 8,400 autistic children, with 23,000 more on the wait list. Ostensibly to clear up the backlog, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod introduced a “fair, equitable and sustainable” new plan: give families the money to seek out, and directly pay for, the services they need.

Starting April 1, the amount of these “childhood budgets” will depend upon the child’s age and household income. From ages two to six, families will receive up to $20,000 per year per child. Children seven years and older will receive up to $55,000 by the time they turn 18 — or $5,000 a year. 

Sounds great on the surface, until one starts shopping around for these therapeutic treatments.

Autism creates an assortment of challenges — poor social skills, repetitive behaviours, inability to speak, just to name a few — that arise from genetic and environmental factors. The spectrum refers to the variety and type of symptoms experienced, making treatments vary with intensity and time.

Experts agree that the best therapy for developing social, motor, verbal and reasoning skills is the Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approach. It is recommended that children receive 25 to 40 hours of therapy a week, depending on where they are on the spectrum.

The average cost for private-sector ABA treatment is $5,000 a month, or $60,000 a year. To put that into perspective: Kristen Visser, a mother whose six-year-old daughter is in government-funded therapy part-time, told Canadian Press the treatments enabled her child to feed herself and communicate concepts such as “I love you.” From April 1 onward, Visser will qualify for less than $5,000 a year to continue to pay for the $60,000-a-year treatment.

Visser’s situation is replicated by scores of families across Ontario which simply will not be able to afford the level of services their children need to develop into an adulthood in which they will be able to function.

Minister of Education Lisa Thompson announced March 11 that school boards would be getting extra funding to cope with the sudden increase of children with autism entering the school system on April 1. But educators say classrooms cannot substitute for full-time intensive therapy and that the extra funding will not be adequate to hire enough staff trained in behavioural therapy.

It’s extremely disingenuous of the government to cut funding so dramatically while claiming to improve children’s lives by eliminating the wait list for services. But even more dangerous is the government washing its hands of the responsibility of providing for these vulnerable children and families. Instead, they hand over money and leave it up to stressed-out, overburdened parents to shop around, and pay for, support. They expect untrained teachers and underfunded schools to meet complex needs.

It is an example of the privatization of service provision at the expense of the practice of universality, of a shared responsibility to provide for the common good. This principle is close to the heart of Catholic social teaching, which maintains that governments exist to build the common good, promote human dignity and protect human rights.

Lest we’re tempted to think that autism is an isolated problem that doesn’t fall under the common-good category, two facts prove otherwise. 

First, the rate of autism has been increasing in recent years, with one in 66 Canadian children and youth now having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis.

Secondly, the children of today will be the leaders, caregivers, professionals and parents of tomorrow’s society. We need to invest in them now for them to be able to fulfil the God-given plan for their lives and to build a strong society. 

Desperate parents are begging for the government to listen to their creative solutions to make up for shortfalls in therapy funding. Autism experts and educational professionals also wish to weigh in.

The government’s response? “Let me be perfectly clear: This government believes in this plan, this government will implement this plan and I will be the minister that does this,” MacLeod was quoted as saying.

Also, Canadian Press reported that MacLeod told the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis to publicly endorse her new plan or else face “four long years” and be labelled a “self-interested organization” in government communications.

Such bullying, hard-heartedness and offloading of responsibility is unacceptable. The government must be accountable to the people they serve. 

We are all called to value life and advocate for the dignity of the human person. 

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)


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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.