New autism supports for Ontario schools to come due to therapy funding changes

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Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, left, looks on as Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks to media following his meeting with Quebec Premier Francois Legault , not shown, at Queens Park, in Toronto on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

School boards will get additional money to support students with autism, Ontario’s education minister announced Monday, as hundreds of kids may soon enter school because they will get less funding for therapy.

Families say that recently announced changes to the Ontario Autism Program that will kick in April 1 mean many of those children currently in government-funded, full-time therapy will have to instead transition into school. The government says there are 1,105 children with autism who are not in school.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson said school boards will get an average of $12,300 for each new student with autism entering the school system in the remaining months of this school year.

“This funding will allow school boards to make sure there are proper supports available during the transition from therapy to school,” she announced in Ottawa.

The government is aiming to clear a wait list of 23,000 kids by spreading an existing pot of money to all children diagnosed with autism, instead of fully funding the treatment.

Families will get up to $20,000 per year for treatment for children under six and $5,000 a year for children six to 18 _ with the maximum amounts available to families with incomes under $55,000 _ but intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year. Many families say they will be unable to cover the difference to keep their kids in full-time therapy.

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Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford speaks during a pre-budget lock-up at Queens Park Legislature in Toronto on March 28, 2018. Doug Ford is blaming the “mess” he inherited from his predecessor for his controversial decision to appoint about a dozen Tory candidates in ridings across Ontario. The Progressive Conservative leader says the appointments — announced over the weekend — were necessary because of the short time left before the province’s spring election campaign begins in early May. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Parents and educators have been raising the alarm about what the autism funding changes will mean for the school system. They are concerned that already-stretched educational assistant resources will be spread even thinner.

The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association called Thompson’s announcement a “step in the right direction,” but said many boards already outspend their special education budget.

The government has indicated for weeks that no new supports were planned as a result of the new autism program, but Thompson didn’t say Monday what had changed to prompt her announcement.

“We’re always out there talking and we’re listening and ultimately improving and moving forward, embracing best practices,” she said in an interview.

Hundreds of parents and advocates protested on the lawn of the legislature last week, calling for the government to fund autism therapy based on children’s individual needs, rather than just their age and family income.

The average $12,300 per student funding is normally available to boards based on head counts twice a year, including upcoming on March 31, but the government said it will give boards that money for any student with autism that registers between April 1 and June.

Thompson also announced that the government will fully subsidize an ASD-specific additional qualification course for teachers, and an after-school skills development pilot project for students with autism will be expanded to all 72 school boards.

Liberal Mitzie Hunter called the plan “incomplete.”

“Teachers should not be asked to replace the work therapists should be doing,” she said. “Giving teachers a one day course will not replace the years of training that professional autism therapists undertake.”

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The after-school program expansion will cost $6.1 million for the 2019-20 school year, and the subsidized course will cost $1 million per year, Thompson’s office said. It would not provide an estimate for how much additional per student funding will be provided because it is waiting to see how many of those students register for school.

Funding to the Geneva Centre for Autism to provide online training opportunities for educators is also being doubled, to $2 million.