TORONTO – As a mother to a son with autism, Kristen Ellison vowed two years ago she would never vote for the Ontario Liberals, angered over a sudden policy change.
But two years is a long time in politics.
The spring of 2016 saw parents of children with autism launching sustained protests against the Liberal government for announcing kids over four would be cut off from funding for intensive therapy.
The parents were supported by then-Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown, who spoke at their protests, used several of his questions in the legislature to press the Liberals on it, and ran ads championing their cause.
But since then, the Liberals have overhauled the program in question, and installed a new, friendly face as the minister in charge, and the Progressive Conservatives have elected a new leader, whose name is met with deep suspicion and anger in the autism community.
Before he was Tory leader, then-Toronto city councillor Doug Ford reportedly said a home for developmentally disabled youth in his neighbourhood “ruined the community.”
“You can’t destroy a community like this. People have worked 30 years for their home,” Ford said at a public meeting, as reported by the Etobicoke Guardian. “My heart goes out to kids with autism. But no one told me they’d be leaving the house. If it comes down to it, I’ll buy the house myself and resell it.”
He then went on TV and defended the comments. A few weeks ago Ford called reports of his original comments “lies,” but the damage appears to be done. Ellison said the words were a slap in the face.
VIDEO: Doug Ford defending stance against mental health facility in Etobicoke
“Comments like that, they hurt you to your core because it’s your baby,” she said. “We love our kids for who they are.”
Ellison said she can’t vote for a party led by Ford.
“It’s not somebody I can support, because at the end of the day, he’s going to control the bank account to my son’s future and without social services and support, I’m sunk,” she said.
The Tories announced in May that if they win the election they would add $100 million in funding in 2018-19 to the Ontario Autism Program, which is $38 million more than the Liberals promised in this year’s budget.
But the Progressive Conservative platform commits $100 million over the course of their mandate.
Ontario Autism Coalition president Bruce McIntosh said the group has decided not to endorse one party, as each plan has strengths and weaknesses. The Progressive Conservative financial commitment is large, but it’s vague, McIntosh said.
There is also a lot of anger and skepticism toward Ford in the autism parent community, McIntosh said, partly because of the 2014 comments and partly because the coalition has had trouble getting face time with Ford.
The NDP, which also had several members support the 2016 autism protests, has pledged $201 million over three years and has promised to develop a comprehensive autism support strategy, increase school funding for students with special needs, and will stop requiring people to reapply for supports when they turn 18.
McIntosh praised the initiatives, but said what they didn’t speak to is a need to get school staff trained in applied behavioural analysis.
The Liberal plan is moot, since leader Kathleen Wynne admitted they won’t win Thursday’s election, which McIntosh said is kind of disappointing.
VIDEO: Ontario Families of children with autism demanding Liberals change rules
“The Liberals, the really frustrating thing here is that they’ve done well by us,” he said. “It’s taken a couple of years but we’ve actually built a pretty good working relationship with (Children and Youth Services Minister) Michael Coteau.”
The Liberals had originally announced in 2016 that a new autism program would do away with the distinctions between Intensive Behavioural Intervention and Applied Behaviour Analysis and blend them into a service that would tailor the intensity of therapy to a child’s individual needs.
That program was not due to roll out for two years and in the meantime the government said it would stop funding IBI for kids over four, giving families of kids removed from the IBI wait list $8,000 to pay for private therapy during the transition. That amount would only pay for, at most, a few months of therapy, parents said.
The previous minister was canned and mere weeks after getting the job, Coteau announced more funding, a quicker start date, no age cut-offs, and a direct funding option that allows parents to either receive funding to pay for private therapy or use government-funded services.
The Ontario Autism Coalition, instead of endorsing a party, is endorsing individual candidates. Coteau is the only Liberal on the list, and there are nine NDP incumbents as well as 10 Tories, despite the hesitation with their leader.