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Ontario Autism Program faces funding delays amid soaring demand for services

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Amidst an ever-growing demand for services, parents with children on the autism spectrum are growing desperate with an increasing waitlist and funding delays for critical therapies, while advocates want to see a shift to a needs-based program.

According to an internal assessment obtained by CTV News, the Ontario Autism Program (OAP) budget of $667 million will only serve a third of the 60,000 children in core clinical therapies, with thousands more added to the list every year.

"Incredibly terrifying that my son may not receive services for four to six years," said mother of two Catherine Epkenhaus.

"There are children accessing services at this point, but not nearly to the degree of what was promised through the provincial government, which is leaving a lot of children languishing on lists," said Amanda Baysarowich, founder of IBI Behavioural Services in Barrie.

Baysarowich added that parents are left uncertain about their children's futures.

Epkenhaus' two children were diagnosed with autism. She says due to financial constraints, she could only afford one-half day of therapy per week.

"We did see progress in his growth and development, but it wasn't enough. It was not nearly enough. He needed to be there every day, and at $60 per hour, it's just not feasible," she explained.

Epkenhaus decided to take measures into her own hands by going back to school to learn how to treat her kids herself rather than pay for their therapies.

"It's scary, and that's the whole reason why I'm here going to school," she said. "To not only be able to support my son from a clinical aspect but also help the community,"

A community that Baysarowich says is struggling to afford the necessary therapy without government funding.

"Remortgaging homes, liquidating assets, selling offsets just to be able to fund therapy upfront," Baysarowich noted.

She wants the government to change its age-focused funding structure to a more needs-based system to appropriately serve each individual, explaining how with the current system, a nine-year-old requiring extensive support is allocated a maximum of $65,000, while the maximum for a 10-year-old with the exact needs is $24,000 less.

CTV News reached out to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services for comment on how it would rectify the backlog and funding concerns.

In response, the ministry only highlighted the increased funding and support it has provided since taking power.

"We doubled the program's budget and increased it a further 10 per cent this year to $660 million. We're going to keep meeting benchmarks and making progress as we implement a needs-based program that supports children and youth with autism and their families.

In addition to our $660 million investment in the OAP, we have dedicated $917 million towards a comprehensive range of programs and services designed to support children and youth living with special needs—including autism. This brings our government's combined support to over $1.5 billion," reads the statement.

Baysarowich argues that meanwhile, thousands of children left waiting for funding are missing peak years for growth and development in the early intervention stages.

"ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis ] is the only scientifically proven method to help children on the autism spectrum," she explained.

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