With Ontario’s autism crisis, the eyes of history are solely focused on Doug Ford

The massive Autism Protest on the lawn of Queen’s Park March 7 2019

Nothing tests the character of a leader like times of crisis. How they respond will dictate how they are perceived by those working for them, peers, and the public at large for those in positions of public influence.

Will they show prudence, pause to take a moment, and figure out what’s going on? Or will they freeze, not listen, and be unwilling to adapt to the moment?

Make no mistake about it, Ontario is facing an autism crisis. For sure the Ford Government inherited a system of limited resources that has many on a waitlist for autism services for more than 2 years. It’s a laudable goal to try and reduce the wait time to receive these services, as early intervention often leads to positive results. How the government has tried to solve this problem however has thrown the system into crisis.

With the February 6 announcement of the Ontario Autism Program changes, the Ford Government will move from a service-based system, to a financial supplement scheme that uses age and income testing to determine how much money families can receive to apply to autism related services. The new system no longer considers the various needs of children on the autism spectrum. Children requiring high levels of intervention will be reduced to sub-clinical supports that would get them less than 1 day per week for those under age 6, and 1 day a month for those over age 6. However, that’s only if you get the maximum supplement. The claw-backs start as soon as your family net income hits $55,000 a year.

The lead-time for implementation was set to less than 2 months with an April 1 start date, throwing those in service into crisis-mode as their therapy supports are ripped away. Worse yet, it’s abundantly clear that the specifics of how the new scheme will work were not established prior to announcing the changes. It’s kind of a “figure it out as we go” approach to policy. That type of thinking has serious consequences.

The impacts have led to significant protests by parents and various stakeholders within the autism community. Organizations far and wide have come out against this policy. Autism advocacy groups like Autism Canada, Autism Ontario, and Autism Speaks have all issued statements against the policy. Ontario’s educators have raised a white flag against this policy as they’re not able to handle the increase of special needs children with just 3 months to go in the school year. There are reports of layoffs by behavioural therapy organizations due to the April 1 changes. It seems everything is lining up into a much bigger problem than what the Ford Government inherited in the first place. With one issue after another revealing itself, the policy is snowballing out of control with just 3 weeks to go.

How many more parents, educators, service providers, and autism advocacy groups will it take for the Ford Government to start listening?

Back to leadership. The reason I believe this is Doug Ford’s issue to deal with is that his minister burnt a bridge on this file before the changes were even announced, snubbing stakeholders all along the way. You can’t take a scorch-earthed approach for as long as the minister has, and then say you’ve had a change of heart and come back to the table. The minister’s credibility is in tatters over this file, and a fresh face is needed to restore public trust.

The buck stops with the Premier. Doug Ford needs to step in and show leadership on this file. Doug can use the school crisis to create some space for himself and pause the changes. There are many ways out of this mess that do not require spending more government money. But it all starts with extending an olive branch to stakeholders and having meaningful engagement.

So how will Doug Ford respond? Will he create some space to pause, reflect, and consult? Or will he do nothing and let the autism storm wreak havoc? Will Doug Ford’s legacy show that he ignored the needs of vulnerable autistic kids, his so-called kryptonite? Or will he show compassion and create a system that supports the autism community and promotes inclusion within Ontario society?

Time’s a ticking, and the eyes of history are solely focused on the Premier. Setting the environment up for success now, means there’s a real opportunity to give more people with autism an equitable chance to be contributing members of society later on in life.

Doug, you can do this, we’re counting on you!

Political Scientist turned IT professional serving Canadians in the public service. Father of 2 incredible boys on the autism spectrum.

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