With the waitlist for the Ontario Autism Program roughly doubling to more than 52,000 children during the past four years of Progressive Conservative rule, local advocates are pushing back.
Planted outside of the Sudbury home of the Ritchie/Staddon family is a sign that reads “Ford doubled the autism waitlist. #50KIsNotOK.”
“If someone comes to your door and is canvassing, ask them questions,” said family matriarch Julia Ritchie, who alongside husband Sean Staddon is raising two children with autism; June, 7, and Charles, 5.
Although the Ontario Autism Coalition behind the sign campaign is non-partisan in nature, the Ritchie/Staddon household also has a sign for Sudbury NDP candidate Jamie West on their front yard in hopes of assisting his campaign in the June 2 provincial election.
West has been an ally these past few years, Ritchie said, adding that although she is willing to work with anyone who takes office, West has already been advocating on their behalf for years.
“We have incumbents here who have been very helpful to us,” she said, adding that Nickel Belt NDP candidate France Gélinas has also been a vocal advocate.
The anti-Progressive Conservative bend comes as a result of what advocates have done to autism programming in Ontario during the party’s tenure.
Although perceived shortcomings in the province’s autism programming date back to the Ontario Liberal Party’s time in power, the wait list for services jumped from 23,000 children to more than 52,000 under Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford. This, despite the Progressive Conservatives pledging early in their tenure that the changes they were making to the program would help clear the waitlist.
Ritchie’s daughter, June, has been on the waitlist since 2017, while Charles has been on the waitlist since 2019.
The province recently introduced a one-time lump funding of $20,000 for children aged one to five and $5,000 for children aged six to 17, which Ontario Autism Coalition board member Sara Kitlar-Pothier described as a “waitlist stipend.”
“It really was kind of hush money,” she said, adding that applying the same blanket amount of funding to all kids with autism doesn’t make much sense for a condition with a wide spectrum in which people can have very different needs.
“Some need a whole lot more, and some need less, so these budgets were wasteful,” she said. “The support needs that you have don’t go away at that age, so it’s an arbitrary age that they’ve set up for those budgets.”
For the Ritchie/Staddon family, it’s also inadequate.
Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy is $65 an hour on the cheap side. Charles requires 17 and a half per week and June requires two hours per day. The provincial funding helps a bit, but the family is still paying thousands of dollars out of pocket.
Kitlar-Pothier said that her son has been on the waitlist for five years and that Applied Behaviour Analysis therapists, which can cost up to $120 per hour, are well out of her family’s financial reach. Her son currently gets 1.5 hours of therapy time per week, which helps a bit but isn’t as much as he requires.
“The idea that you can’t give them what they need to thrive in their life, that’s devastating,” she said. “When the government has the power to help support these kids and they purposefully choose not to, that’s something everyone should know about.”
In addition to the Ontario Autism Coalition sign campaign, the coalition is also organizing a Letter to Your Neighbour campaign wherein people are encouraged to help inform their neighbours about how shortcomings in the Ontario Autism Program have affected them.
The organization has sold out of lawn signs, but have published a .pdf version of the sign online that people can download and print off to help spread the word.
The Ontario Autism Coalition is also hosting a “Day of Action” rally in front of the Swiss Chalet at Barrydowne Road and Lasalle Boulevard on May 28 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Local provincial candidates respond
After a few years of advocating for autism supports, Sudbury NDP candidate Jamie West said that it’s clear to him it won’t be an overnight fix.
“We need to go back to the basics and provide what they’ve been advocating from the beginning, which is needs-based funding, and have the experts who work in the field determining for us the best therapies, the best ways for these kids to be the best that they can be and provide the funding for it,” he said.
The Ontario Autism Program has been chipped away at for years and that many service providers have left the industry, which he said adds a challenging layer to the problem. It’ll take some convincing for people to return to this line of work or enter the sector for the first time.
In-school wraparound support will be required, he said, adding that a holistic approach is required to ensure that kids receive what they need so they can achieve better outcomes.
It can be the difference between a child being able to explain what they want versus not being able to do so, he said.
Sudbury Green candidate David Robinson said his party is committed to fast-tracking funding for autism therapy “so that families get immediate relief while the government fixes its broken plan.”
Robinson also pointed to a 2019 pledge from Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner to improve autism services.
On the campaign trail, Nickel Belt Liberal candidate Gilles Proulx, an educator by trade, said that he stopped by a house in Val Caron where a woman shared a story about her autistic children that has affected him since.
“My heart broke right at the door,” he said, adding that the mother had to quit her job in order to care for her children’s special needs.
“To me, it’s clear that we need to work with these families, that we work with clinicians, and that we work with the schools,” he said. “It’s sad to see that they’re being left behind.”
The Liberals would add another special education teacher to every school in the province, put into place direct billing for autism therapy so the province picks up the tab from the get-go, and make for a more seamless transition between youth services and adult services.
A retired educator who specialized in special needs education, Sudbury Liberal candidate David Farrow echoed his colleague’s sentiments, adding that he has seen tremendous outcomes among those students with autism who receive the services they need.
“As a former principal of a school with many special needs kids, when you put someone in a school that is dedicated to special needs, the services and the programming goes up astronomically,” he said. “We need to create more capacity to deal with the backlog.”
Although the Liberals’ take on the Ontario Autism Program appeared similar to that of the NDP, West said every election season is like Halloween, where the Liberals “dress up like New Democrats.”
With the program degrading under successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments, he said their track records should speak for themselves.
“I don’t want to be the third party to let them down.”
Sudbury.com reached out to the political camps of Greater Sudbury’s two Progressive Conservative candidates, Marc Despatie (Sudbury) and Randy Hazlett (Nickel Belt), as well as the party’s provincial campaign team, but did not receive a response.
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.