Advocates and parents of children with autism spent hours riding stationary bikes at Covent Garden Market in London, Ont., Friday to bring awareness to children awaiting treatment from the Ontario Autism Program (OAP).
Organized by the Ontario Autism Coalition, the event saw participants cycle for more than 13 hours, or the equivalent of 50,000 seconds.
“The idea behind that is we’re spinning a second for each child currently waiting on the Autism Ontario waitlist for therapy,” said Jessica Ashton, a board director with the coalition as well as a mother of a child with autism.
Ontario currently lists just over 53,000 children as registered for the OAP, but during question period in the provincial legislature Wednesday, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Merrilee Fullerton said she disputes that number as representing the province’s waitlist.
“The actual reality is that we have 40,000 children receiving supports right now,” said Fullerton in responding to a question from York South-Western MPP Faisal Hassan.
Those types of supports are presented in a variety of forms and as of February, only 645 families are enrolled to receive core clinical services, according to a breakdown provided by the ministry’s office.
The coalition is concerned that more families haven’t been accepted to receive core clinical services.
Despite the various supports offered, Ashton says parents of children with Autism are struggling in the province.
“The issue, really, that concerns me is there’s a crucial time in which these children need help, so if kids are waiting eight to 10 years for therapy, which is what is happening currently, they’re going to miss that opportunity to learn the tools that they need to live an independent life,” Ashton said.
“We either pay now or we pay much more later.”
London-Fanshawe NDP MPP Teresa Armstrong, who also serves as the official opposition’s critic for children and youth services, says she’s heard similar concerns from her constituents.
“Kids have regressed. It’s not the same thing when you’re not being able to access services when you need them,” Armstrong told Global News while taking part in Friday’s event.
“Under this program, I mean the pandemic is a factor, but prior to that, there were struggles, parents were still not happy with how this government decided to change things.”
If an Ontario NDP government is in office following the provincial election in June, Armstrong says the party “will be paying attention to needs-based autism services.”
“We’re going to talk to the stakeholders, we’re going to talk to families and children with autism and professionals and find out what’s working and what needs to be fixed because we don’t want to tear everything down and have families, again, in that uncertain place,” Armstrong added.
In an email to Global News, Krystle Caputo, communication director for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, said the 40,000 children receiving supports for autism make up “nearly five times more children than ever in the history of Ontario.”
“We are making positive progress, and remain on target to launch the Independent Intake Organization this spring and bring 8,000 children into core clinical services by the fall,” Caputo said.
“Our government took the recommendations of the Ontario Autism Advisory Panel, an expert advisory group made up of parents, clinicians, researchers, providers, and self-advocates to inform a truly needs-based Ontario Autism Program.”