Cuts to autism program impacts families, caregivers

Hundreds attend Queen's Park rally against the Ford government's overhaul of the Ontario Autism Program (OAP).

Nicholas Sokic 3 minute read February 20, 2020

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Earlier this week, the first Ontario provincial legislature after the winter break was overshadowed by the Queen’s Park rally of those against the Ford government’s overhaul of the Ontario Autism Program (OAP).

In December, Social Services Minister Todd Smith said that the new needs-based autism program will be phased out over two years, as opposed to the previous date of April 2020. Around five buses full of parents, advocates and those with autism arrived to protest the continued delay of essential services.

Vanessa Coens, who works with Autism Ontario, has two autistic boys, one twelve and one ten years old. Through various therapies and supports they no longer require educational assistance at school. But her nephew, who is in the first grade, faces a different challenge.

“He’s one of those children who had full day support and is now down to half days with movement and toilet breaks. He’s not fully toilet trained,” says Coens. “When I think of who is getting hurt, it’s him and all the other children who require that extra level of support. Hopefully, they can get to a place one day where [the support] isn’t needed anymore, but know it’s there if they do need it.”

Coens believes the provincial government should follow the recommendations set out in an October report from the OAP Advisory Panel. The report was compiled by parents of children and youth on the autism spectrum, clinicians, researchers, autistic adults, service providers, former public servants and others who have professional and personal experience with individuals on the autism spectrum.

Education on what autism is and the best way to empower an autistic individual to live like everyone else is important, not just for our children, but for the community and our province

It recommends that supports be universally available based on the needs of families, youth and caregivers. These supports can include “caregiver training and education, workshops and related follow-up consultation, support groups, transitional supports for youth who are aging out of the program, and information and resources.”

Coens, based in Niagara, did not attend the rally, but regularly speaks at Niagara College, Brock University and various organizations on autism awareness and education. It is that education that she feels is lacking, not only in the provincial government, but also in wider communities.

“Education on what autism is and the best way to empower an autistic individual to live like everyone else  is important, not just for our children, but for the community and our province,” says Coens. “[People with autism] are just like everyone else. When I look at my children, they’re no different.”

She also belongs to an autism parent support group and knows several parents who have attended rallies like the one that recently took place in Toronto. She says that fighting for their children’s care is an emotional and anxious experience.

“I would hope that whatever is going to happen in our province, things will be okay if they listen to what families, the community and autistic individuals are saying.”