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Lisa MacLeod apologizes for pressuring group to support autism program

The Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis is speaking out, saying they received pressure from children's minister Lisa MacLeod and her staff to support the government's autism plan. Shallima Maharaj reports.

WOODBRIDGE, Ont. – Ontario’s social services minister said Thursday that she was sorry if she made anyone feel threatened, after behaviour analysts said she warned them of consequences if they didn’t support her new autism program.

Lisa MacLeod is resisting calls for her resignation in the wake of the comment, and her apology came late Thursday after the premier was peppered with questions about the remark.

“It’s been an emotional time,” MacLeod wrote on Twitter. “This is an issue I take very personally, and I apologize if my comments made anyone feel threatened or uncomfortable.”

READ MORE: Group says Ontario minister told them to support new autism program or face ‘4 long years’

Earlier Thursday, Premier Doug Ford ruled out asking MacLeod to quit cabinet, calling her an “absolute all-star.”

“I would never ever – I want to repeat that – ever ask Lisa to resign. She’s done an incredible job and let’s just make sure it’s factual,” Ford said after an unrelated announcement.

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MacLeod’s office never denied the assertion, made by the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysts. Instead, it issued a statement saying that despite “collaborative dialogues,” the association was “unwavering” in its desire to self-regulate – and unwilling to work with the government.

The group disputes that, and said MacLeod and her staff requested a quote of support a few days before the new program was announced.

READ MORE: Ontario couple considers separation, selling home to help children with autism

“(They) indicated that failure to do so would result in ‘four long years’ for the organization,” the association said. “The minister also indicated that if a quote of support was not forthcoming, a communication that behaviour analysts are ‘self-interested’ would be released from her office.”

The association, parents and advocates say the revamped autism program will leave many children without the level of therapy they need.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath joined parents of children with autism in calling for MacLeod to resign over her alleged comments.

“Lisa MacLeod is supposed to be a voice for children and parents at the cabinet table,” Horwath said in a statement. “Instead, she’s threatened them.”

Ontario Public Service Employees Union president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said he was appalled by reports of MacLeod’s actions, and called for her to step down.

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“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in Lisa MacLeod,” Thomas said in a statement. “It’s unbelievable she would bully others to pay lip service to Doug Ford’s attack on autistic children.”

READ MORE: ‘There is a tsunami headed for the school system’: Autism program changes raise concerns about effects on schools

MacLeod announced last week that in order to clear a backlog of 23,000 children waiting for publicly funded autism therapy, families will get up to $140,000 to pay for treatment – a maximum amount if a child is in treatment from age two to 18. Advocates say intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 per year.

Critics of the plan slam the fact that it’s based on age, rather than individual needs for varying levels of intensity in treatment.

Ford left the door open to a future “tweak” to the program, but suggested it wouldn’t happen while the province tackles a $13.5-billion deficit.

“I’ve always said in government, the only way you can take care of the most vulnerable people in society, you’ve got to take care of your balance sheet,” he said. “If we had the choice to just put a ton more money in, we would.”

READ MORE: Ontario government overhauls autism program to attempt to eliminate wait list

Autism is one of the most difficult files anywhere in government, Ford said.

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“I can deal with the finances, I can deal with the sectors and ministries, but do you know what my kryptonite is? My kryptonite is when you talk about children and you talk about children with autism,” he said.

“My heart breaks, it really does, for these families.”

Ford himself has previously come under fire from the autism community, when as a Toronto city councillor he reportedly said a home for developmentally disabled youth in his neighbourhood “ruined the community.”

“My heart goes out to kids with autism. But no one told me they’d be leaving the house,” Ford said at a public meeting, as reported by the Etobicoke Guardian in 2014.

During last year’s election campaign, Ford called reports of the comments “lies,” though at the time he went on TV and defended them.

WATCH: Premier Doug Ford on Thursday said he’d “never” ask Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod to resign

Doug Ford says he’ll ‘never’ ask Lisa MacLeod to resign
Doug Ford says he’ll ‘never’ ask Lisa MacLeod to resign