Ontario removing age limit for autism therapy
Sun. Sep. 3 2006

CTV News has learned that Ontario has decided to pay for special therapy for all autistic children in the province, instead of cutting off funding at age six.

In an exclusive interview, Ontario Minister of Children and Youth Services Mary Anne Chambers promised changes are on the way. "They will not be discharged on the basis of age," Chambers told CTV's Rosemary Thompson in Ottawa. "They will not be cut off."

The decision ends a legal battle with parents of autistic children who say applied behavioural analysis (ABA) therapy is crucial to help their children develop, learn, and interact with other children.

Like many 6-year-olds, Amjad Yassine is a little nervous about starting Grade 1. But ABA has made it possible for him to go to a regular school. "My son at the age of four did not speak a word," said his father, Dr. Sam Yassine. But "after two years in the publicly funded pre-school autism programme, Amjad is thriving."

The government started paying for the therapy for autistic children from ages two through five in 2000. But when they turned six, the money was cut off.

"It's causing us a lot of concern," said Yassine. "My son did improve quite a bit, but he still has autism ... and he needs applied behavioural analysis to continue to learn and develop."

ABA therapy is an intensive programme designed specifically for autistic children. It's expensive, with the cost ranging from $30,000 to $80,000 per year for each child.
But it works.

"Within one year of applied behavioural analysis treatment, my son was speaking in full sentences," said Yassine. "His behaviour changed from banging his head on the floor to interacting with children."

Parents remain doubtful regarding the promise to continue to fund the therapy after age six.

"We're a little bit skeptical of this premier," said Laura MacIntosh, parent of an autistic boy. "We've been lied to before."

During the last provincial election, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty promised to extend ABA therapy into the school system -- and to end long waiting lists.

But the waiting list for Ontario's pre-school autism programme has since grown from 79 children to 753 children in 2006, and $67 million committed to autism programmes languished, unspent.

"I understand that there are kids on a wait list and that is not acceptable to me either," said Chambers. "We will continue to work hard to correct that and we'll continue to work hard to make sure that all kids regardless of their age will have the supports they need."
From a report by CTV's Rosemary Thompson

Transcript of Rosemary Thompson's interview with Ontario Minister of Children and Youth Services Mary Anne Chambers in Toronto, Aug. 25, 2006:

Q: Minister Chambers, parents are concerned their children won't receive ABA therapy after age six, what is your position on the age six cut-off?
A: They will not be discharged on the basis of age, Rosemary. They will not be cut off. And in fact that is an announcement that I made in July of last year. So it's been more than a year now that kids who are age six or over continue to receive services.

Q: But parents say they are worried that their children will not get services past age six. What's changed?
A: No -- kids are not being discharged on the basis of age. We have in fact a lot of 6-year-olds that are still in the programme receiving ABA therapy, through the programme that we refer to as the pre-school programme, but, in fact, provides therapy for kids regardless of age.

Q: What about the regular school system, will children who graduate from the pre-school autism programme get therapy in regular school system?
A: Well, in the school system all the evidence that we have suggest that applied behavioral analysis is workable for kids. So it's a kind of ABA that is delivered in a school type setting. Now, parents who continue to have their kids in the pre-school type programme are obviously not sure that their kids have the option of receiving support in schools.

Q: So how will this happen? Will you be training teachers and teaching assistants?
A: Yes. What we have already done is to train teachers. We are also about to launch a programme which will train thousands of teaching assistants in the schools. We are also going to be training educational, early education workers, child care providers, and we think these types of supports are exactly what parents are asking for their kids in the schools.

Q: Is this a work in progress?
A: It is a work in progress. We are building capacity so far, and by that I mean we are training more people to provide support for kids. And, yes, there still are wait lists but that is because it is still a work in progress. We have also trained a number of -- we have the first graduate class, the first graduating cohort -- we have about 90 individuals who have completed a one year college level programme that we started last year. And these people are learning behavioral analysis will be able to work as therapists for these kids. Our government is committed to providing support and services to these kids.

Q: Ultimately do you want all kids with autism integrated into the regular school system to get therapy?
A: We know, for example, right now, that there are 7,000 kids in the school system with autism and our goal -- and I'm working with the Minister of Education on this Rosemary -- our goal is to make sure all kids with autism can access the supports and services they need in the publicly funded school system in Ontario.

Q: How long is that going to take?
A: Well we're working on it now, and some kids who are maybe at a higher functioning level they are receiving the supports they need in school. I talk to parents who are already satisfied with the supports they are receiving in schools. WE want to make sure there are more resources in the school system to make sure that all the kids get the supports they need.

Q: But why wasn't all the funding dedicated to autism spent on autism? We understand millions of the budget was unspent and transferred to the General Revenue Fund?
A: Well that was two years ago. This past fiscal year we actually overspent the ABA budget by $ 6 million and this year we are spending more than double on autism than what we spent 2 years ago. So, in 2003-2004 when the budget was under-spent, that was because the services were not in place in the schools in time for example for delivering these services. But we have fixed that, and we can't go back in time. But I can tell you as we move forward we are actually spending more money than has ever been spent before for services for kids with autism. And I want families to know that I understand that there are kids on a wait list and that is not acceptable to me either and we will continue to work hard to correct that and we'll continue to work hard to make sure that kids all kids regardless of their age will have the support they need.

Q: Do you want to match what Alberta is doing...so that Ontario families don't feel they must move to Alberta to get the services they need?
A: Our goal is for Ontario to provide all the services that kids with autism need here in Ontario.

Q: So does that mean funding services for kids from two to 18?
A: We're assessing and diagnosing children very early now because of our best start initiative. So, as soon as kids are diagnosed we want them to receive services.

Q: So, if you believe in giving kids therapy in the schools why did you fight parents for years in the courts on this issue?
A: The court case actually was a case about jurisdiction. It wasn't a case about whether the services would be provided it was actually an argument about whose jurisdiction it is to determine how public resources should be allocated. And basically the courts ruled that it is the government's jurisdiction to provide to allocate public resources across services. So as a matter of interest even as that case was proceeding we were delivering a commitment that the premier had made a couple of years ago that we would not discharge kids on the basis of age. And we are doing it; in fact the majority of kids are receiving services.