The Ford government announced Monday that it was backing off its controversial autism plan.
In a release, the Ontario government said it is instead charging its autism expert panel to consider what a “new needs-based and sustainable autism program would look like.”
“Our government is committed to a needs-based program that provides children and youth with the supports they need to thrive,” said Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith in a statement.
“Over the past number of weeks, I have met with service providers and families of children with autism who share a common goal to provide the best possible care and make a positive difference in the lives of children and families living with autism in Ontario.”
Monday’s pivot appears to mark a shift from plans that were first released in February when the province announced changes to its autism program that would see funding given directly to families instead of to regional service providers.
The changes also limited the amount families could receive to $20,000 a year for kids under six, with funding dropping to $5,000 per year after that until the child is 18. The maximum amount is only available to families earning less than $55,000 a year.
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Smith spoke at a press conference on Monday to introduce the plan. He was asked for clarity on what needs based would look like but could not provide clarity as he said it was all still being developed by the panel.
“I’m not in a position where I can presume what the Ontario Autism Panel is going to come up with, but I know that we have the right people at that table,” he stated.
The initial announcement caused a firestorm of criticism, and in April, the provincial government created an advisory panel to review the changes.
It was also announced in April that another $278 million would be earmarked for the province’s autism program, bringing funding to $600 million annually.
Smith was also asked whether that would be enough funding if the panel determined that was not adequate enough to meet the needs of children with autism.
“We feel comfortable that we have the money there,” he responded.
NDP critic for Children and Youth Monique Taylor said in a statement that she was concerned over how long the government was taking to make its changes to autism funding.
“Families and children were devastated by Doug Ford’s callous cuts to the Ontario Autism Program,” Taylor said in a statement. “Over a year later, they’re still waiting, while their children have week after week of critical developmental potential stolen away from them.
“Now, they’re waiting at least until the fall — and who knows if they’ll get the support they need, then.”
Liberal MPP Michael Coteau said that while it was good to see the government change course on its funding model for autism support, he is concerned about the damage that has already been done.
“These changes will take months to implement, and the harms already done cannot simply be undone,” he said in a statement. “For instance, hundreds of service providers have already lost their jobs. It will take time to restore the system, and I worry that children will continue to languish on wait lists as the damage from Ford’s flawed approach is rectified.”
*With files from Global News staff