Mother describes ‘troubling’ wait times for autism intervention program

HALIFAX – Almost a year after her daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Jennifer Morris says she is still on the wait list for a behavioural intervention program.

Now, Morris says she worries the long wait could affect her daughter Sadie, who was four years old when she was diagnosed, because experts say early intervention is crucial.

“From diagnosis to treatment time, years are passing for most kids and that time is extremely valuable,” Morris said. “It makes it doubly frustrating to know that we have such a great program through the IWK but we can’t access it.”

Dr. Isabel Smith, a clinical psychologist at the IWK Health Centre, says early intensive behavioural intervention (EIBI) programs can help children with autism in several ways.

“The program in Nova Scotia is specifically designed to try to enhance the ability of children to relate to other people, adults and their peers, and to improve their language and other non-verbal communication skills,” she said.

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There are currently 44 children taking part in the program at the hospital, and 89 more are waiting to get in.

Allison Garber, whose son is also on the wait list, says the fact there are “more than double the [number of] kids are on the wait list than actually being treated in the program” is “troubling” to her, and Morris agrees.

Two weeks ago, the two mothers started a petition to support quicker access to early intervention, and so far it has garnered 1,251 signatures.

“Our goal would be to be able to address these 90 kids right away who are turning five and time is slipping away from them, but also to look at the bigger picture, as to how we’re able to successfully support them throughout the education system,” Garber said.

The long waits aren’t only delaying treatment for children with autism, but are also delaying  their education.

“The parents are…put in the position to make the choice of having their children enter the school system or keep them out to access this program,” said Garber.

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Morris said the program’s design has put her in a tough spot.

“It differs in the regions,” she said. “In Halifax, and I believe in Cape Breton, every child taking EIBI will miss their first year of school — they have to miss their first year of school at this point, which is why this program is in such a critical position.”

It’s a difficult choice Morris just had to make. She says Sadie, who will turn five years old this summer, will miss her first year of school in order to get into the year-long IWK-run program.

Both mothers met with provincial health minister Leo Glavine earlier this week, and say he’s in agreement that having to delay schooling is not the best option.

“What we have to do is to dedicate more funding for the program, as well as get clinicians trained,” Glavine said.

Glavine could not provide a timeline, saying department still has to map out the first steps before proceeding.