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‘We need to get a handle on the exact count,’ Doug Ford says of autism program wait list

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks during a press conference at Queen's Park to address the findings of the Integrity Commissioner's Report, in Toronto, Wednesday, March 20, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks during a press conference at Queen's Park to address the findings of the Integrity Commissioner's Report, in Toronto, Wednesday, March 20, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston. Cole Burston / The Canadian Press

In an interview on Global News Radio 640 Toronto on Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford stood by his government’s estimate of the backlog for autism support services, but also said the province needs to “get a handle on the exact count.”

The premier’s comments came days after The Globe and Mail reported the findings of an internal review of the government’s changes to the Ontario Autism Program, conducted by PC MPP Roman Baber.

WATCH: (June 20, 2019) Autism program advocates look for ‘fresh start’ after cabinet shuffle
Autism program advocates look for ‘fresh start’ after cabinet shuffle
Autism program advocates look for ‘fresh start’ after cabinet shuffle

Those findings, obtained by Global News, addressed the government’s claim that 23,000 children in Ontario are waiting for autism therapies and supports. That 23,000 figure is “unverified and is likely inaccurate,” Baber wrote in his report.

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Asked on The Kelly Cutrara Show whether he stands by that number and believes it is accurate, Ford said he doesn’t believe his government spread any misinformation about the wait list, but then refrained from providing a number during the interview.

“I believe … since we’ve opened up a few more programs it’s actually going to be a little higher, but I’m not going to quantify any single number right off the top of my head,” Ford said on The Kelly Cutrara Show. “I can’t tell you the exact number.

“There seems to be numbers flying all over the place from the experts to other organizations. So we need to get a handle on the exact count.”

READ MORE: Kiefer Sutherland says Doug Ford has right to own policies after Twitter feud

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The provincial government in early February announced it was overhauling Ontario’s autism program, an effort overseen by Lisa MacLeod, then-minister of children, community and social services. The plan sparked waves of protests from parents across the province, who argued the new funding approach wouldn’t be needs-based and would leave some children without access to the levels of therapy they need.

In justifying the changes, officials repeatedly asserted there were 23,000 children on the wait list and the government’s reform would help clear the list.

The notion of one such list for autism services “is a fiction,” Baber’s report stated. The MPP said the list “is a combination of at least a dozen lists” and suggested “significant duplication” of names could have occurred. Parents, for example, may have registered their children on more on that one list, the report noted.

“It is incorrect to say that 23,000 kids are languishing without treatment,” the report continued.

WATCH (June 20, 2019): ‘Autism isn’t the largest file, but it’s the most sensitive’, Ford says
‘Autism isn’t the largest file, but it’s the most sensitive’: Ford
‘Autism isn’t the largest file, but it’s the most sensitive’: Ford

Ford on Tuesday said his government will review Baber’s “whole report,” which he described as “a pretty good report.”

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“We haven’t went from page to page — it’s quite a large report — but I don’t say that there’s misinformation at all,” the premier told The Kelly Cutrara Show.

“We get our numbers off the experts that deal with autism.”

Ford later described those experts as “bureaucrats at Queen’s Park” and organizations like Autism Ontario.

READ MORE: Autism treatment centre hands out 291 layoff notices amid changes to Ontario autism services

Asked about this particular statement, a spokesperson for Autism Ontario said the organization has regularly informed the province about autism-related issues and reports quarterly to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services on the services and supports it provides families. But the group did not contribute to the wait list numbers advertised this year by the Progressive Conservative government, Katharine Buchan said.

“While [our work] allows us to play a role in helping to inform the work being done during this provincial transition period, we do not collect information regarding wait lists for children waiting for behavior supports or intervention through the Ontario Autism Program and did not play a role in helping to inform the wait list numbers that have been announced,” Buchan wrote in a statement.
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Autism Ontario has 25 chapters across the province. On its website, the organization describes itself as “the province’s leading source of information and referral on autism and one of the largest collective voices representing the autism community.”

READ MORE: Lisa MacLeod announces ‘enhancements’ to Ontario’s controversial autism program

In late March, MacLeod announced “enhancements” to the government’s autism plan, saying income testing for the program would be eliminated and more money would be allocated to providing new needs-based supports.

The government in April also launched public consultations on the program and on May 30, announced the 20 members of a newly-created expert panel who would “collectively provide recommendations to Lisa MacLeod … on the best way to incorporate consultation feedback into the Ontario Autism Program.”

MacLeod has since been named Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport after a cabinet shuffle last month. Todd Smith is now Minister of Children, Community and Social Services.

READ MORE: Fedeli, Mulroney and MacLeod demoted after Ford shuffles cabinet

Ford on Tuesday said Baber’s report will go to the expert panel and be reviewed by Smith. He repeatedly stated that the PCs are “putting $600 million just on the autism file.”

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“We’re going to utilize that money wisely, we’re going to listen to the experts and they’re going to put together the plan and build on to the plan that we put forward. And we’re going to get this right,” the premier said.

“At the end of the day, my goal is to make sure the families that aren’t being served are going to be served.”

— With files from Travis Dhanraj and The Canadian Press