Ontario political leaders pledge changes to autism program

Three of Ontario's major political parties are proposing changes to the province's autism program, while criticizing a lack of help for families under the Progressive Conservative government.

The Tories tried to roll out a new autism program in 2019, with the aim of clearing the wait list, but scrapped it after it sparked outrage among parents because it was age-based rather than needs-based and capped funding at amounts too small to provide meaningful treatment for many.

Their new program is designed to be needs-based and with a doubled budget of $600 million a year, but the roll-out has been delayed, leaving tens of thousands of children still waiting for core services.

The NDP say, if elected, they would change the program to ensure there are no funding caps, including those based on age, and are pledging to boost the program's budget by an additional $125 million by 2024-25.

"It is despicable what's been happening to children and their families, children with autism and their families, for a long time now," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"What we are saying to these families is we are going to design a program with you that meets the needs of your children, that doesn't have artificial age caps on it, that doesn't have artificial standards that are having to be met. Children should be getting the services that they need based on their needs."

The Liberals also say they would remove any age-based determinants from the program and implement a direct billing option while working within the existing budget if elected.

"I've had the chance before becoming leader and since becoming leader to hear directly from families that are struggling so much because of the promises that were made but were not kept by the Ford conservatives on dealing with autism supports and services," Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said.

"So I am very comfortable based on all of the research that we've done, including collaborating with those who are on the front lines who are struggling in this regard, that what we've included in our plan, our fully costed plan, will get us to where we need to be."

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford says he will always support the autism community, and he also wants to look into additional supports for adults with autism.

"What I'm hearing out there, and I'm hearing it more and more, and I have heard it for the last four years...as the parents are getting older, they're concerned on who's going to take care of their adult (children) with autism," Ford said.

The Greens say they would boost funding for the autism program and establish an "ultimate wait time benchmark" for diagnosis and access to core services.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.