TORONTO - School boards across Ontario are being served notice that they must be able to provide specialized autism treatment in classrooms, ideally by September, Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said Friday.
Currently, parents of autistic children are often forced to choose between keeping their kids at home to receive expensive Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy or taking them to school, where they don't receive the costly special treatment.
Those days will soon be over, since the government is issuing a directive to school boards that they won't be able to ignore, Wynne said.
"We will be making sure that it happens and we will be putting supports in place,'' said Wynne, who was unable to say how much the new policy would cost.
"There are many places in the province where this is already happening, but it has to be even across the province.''
The goal is to have the treatment standardized in schools across the province in time for the next school year, although there's no guarantee that will happen on schedule, she added.
"Will there be places where there will still be work to do? Absolutely,'' Wynne said.
"I can't say that exactly the same thing will be happening in every classroom in all of the 5,000 schools across the province on the day after Labour Day, but absolutely it's a goal to have a uniform understanding and delivery of that approach across the province _ as soon as possible.''
The government's announcement came in response to a newly released report by a panel of stakeholders, which made 34 recommendations on how to help Ontario's autistic schoolchildren.
Advocates said they're thrilled the government has agreed to immediately address 23 of the 34 recommendations and also to review the rest.
Getting ABA treatment in all schools would be an amazing development, but it's equally important that the government has committed to act on so many other recommendations, which will help a wide range of kids with different issues, said Karyn Dumble of Autism Ontario.
"It's re-enforcing what we already know, that there's many ways to teach so that students with autism will learn, and this is something that our parents across this province have been advocating for,'' she said.
Focusing on only a single recommendation would have gone against everything the autism panel was preaching, added Kathryn Everest of Autism Society Ontario. Everest is the mother of an autistic teen and one of 12 people who helped prepare the report.
Some parents, however, said the plan doesn't help their children, who are still too young to go to school and caught on long waiting lists for subsidized treatment.
Friends of Lianne Crawford, whose three-year-old son is autistic, launched the website helpjack.ca to raise money for treatment, which costs $70,000 a year. So far the website has raised about $15,000.
"We get no government money and we'll never see any funding unless something changes drastically (in government policy),'' Crawford said.
"Jack's made remarkable progress. Without him we'd be lost, and basically we use the support of the community, through this website, to get him the help he needs. I don't know what other parents (without government funding) do.''
Prior to the government's announcement Friday, Ontario Conservative Leader John Tory unveiled a campaign platform for autism funding that includes $75 million a year to cut the waiting list for treatment of kids under six.
The government's new plan does some good, but doesn't address the waiting list, Tory said.
"We have a specific prescription for dealing with the waitlist, which is unacceptable to have,'' Tory said. "I'm not saying the things the government (plans) are wrong or shouldn't be addressed, but I'm saying I think (we're trying) to address the really big issues.''
New Democrat critic Shelley Martel accused the Liberal government of breaking promises in the past, and said she's skeptical that they're going to keep this one.
"The government made that promise before, they made it in 2003, and the government still hasn't lived up to that promise,'' she said. "We are in the fourth year of this government's mandate, with an election six months away, and the government's making that promise again.''
Laurel Gibbons, mother of a nine-year-old son with autism, said she, too, is skeptical.
"The school boards are going to need more time than six months in order to implement such a strategy,'' she said. "Where are they getting the people that are going to be trained for this? What's the hiring process?''