TORONTO – Ontario’s new minister in charge of the autism file says changes are in the works following the controversial revamp of the treatment program announced earlier this year.
Michael Coteau was brought in to put a fresh face on the Ministry of Children and Youth Services after his predecessor, Tracy MacCharles, was moved out of the portfolio – the only major demotion in the recent cabinet shuffle.
MacCharles and Premier Kathleen Wynne had hinted that they were considering tweaking the transition to the new program, but Coteau is signalling that he is looking even more broadly, to not just the transition plan, but the program itself.
“I hope to be in a place quite shortly where we can come forward with several recommendations for changes,” he said in an interview. “I think that there will be elements of both areas that I’d like to focus on.”
The Liberal government has announced, as part of a new Ontario Autism Program rolling out in 2018, that it will stop funding Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) for kids five and older, instead transitioning them to “enhanced Applied Behavioural Analysis” (ABA) treatment.
In the meantime, families of the 835 children removed from the wait list were given $8,000 to pay for private treatment, but parents say that will only pay for, at most, a few months of intensive therapy.
The changes have angered parents, whose children spent years on the IBI waiting list, only to be abruptly removed.
They have protested at the legislature four times in as many months, and have waged a relentless social media campaign. Coteau already had hundreds of tweets directed at him by the end of the day he was named as minister.
“It’s their children…so they’re very passionate, very concerned,” he said. “Anything that’s mentioned on Twitter or Facebook, it’s just going to help us land in a better place because you can understand where their concerns are and what’s driving the challenges they face.”
The parents’ main demand is for the government to reverse the age five cut-off. The Liberals’ messaging has been that the new program will deliver a flexible amount of service to kids since they are at various places on the autism spectrum, and will end what they say is an artificial distinction between IBI and ABA – one is a more intensive form of the other.
Communicating the changes to parents has been one of the main issues, Coteau said.
“I believe half of the challenge that we’ve had in the past is that parents didn’t know what the next step was,” he said. “We need to be very clear on, ‘This is what’s going to happen next.”‘
Coteau also said the length of the transition to the new program is a “big problem.”
“It was quite easy to identify at the very beginning that two years is too long,” he said. “I am 100 per cent convinced that we can get to a place where people can be happy.”