In the wake of nearly 300 layoffs at a regional autism treatment centre in the Greater Toronto Area, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod is defending her government’s decision to reorganize how funding is distributed.

Staff at the ErinoakKids centre for treatment and development was told on Monday that changes to the Ontario Autism Program (OAP) funding model forced them to restructure the organization.

In total, 291 therapists, applied behaviour analysts and support staff were given 12-week layoff notices. Staff was told 178 new contract positions would be posted as more funding becomes available, leaving 113 people without employment.

Earlier this year, MacLeod announced changes to the autism funding model, opting to give money directly to parents of children with autism rather than to service providers, in a bid to eliminate the treatment wait list.

“Our government believes parents know best,” MacLeod told CTV News Toronto in a statement. “We know we need a flexible system that empowers parents to make decisions specific to the needs of their child.”

After months of intense criticism the government augmented its plan in the spring by doubling the in-year funding for the OAP to $600 million, extending existing therapy contracts for six months and creating a new non-partisan autism panel to advise the government on future changes.

“The ministry continues to provide funding to meet ErinoakKids requirements for services for all children currently in the OAP, including those on six-month extensions of their behavioural plans, as noted by the approximately 180 re-hires,” MacLeod added.

There are warnings, however, that the changes could lead to more layoffs, especially at smaller autism-focused centres that might not be able to withstand the drop in funding.

Nancy Silva-Khan with Autism Advocacy Ontario said families who are limited to $5,000 a year in autism funding might not be able to raise additional funds to pay for treatment that can cost up to $80,000 a year.

“There aren’t going to be that many children, if any, who can afford clinically intensive therapy,” she told CTV News Toronto from Hamilton. “If there are no funds then how are you going to possibly pay the staff, so there are going to be layoffs.”

Silva-Khan adds that therapists who are losing their jobs are considering either moving to other provinces that pay providers directly or leaving the field altogether.

“It’s a huge hit for the community.”

But MacLeod is calling for patience as families receive their funding cheques beginning this week.

“With 23,000 children coming off of the waitlist over the next 18 months, providers will see an influx of families looking for a wide range of service and supports.”

ErinoakKids said despite the circumstances it remains committed to helping children with special needs reach their full potential.

“We would also like to assure families that we are retaining a sufficient number of highly qualified staff to continue to meet the needs of both families who are currently receiving service from us and those who would like to purchase services from us as they receive their childhood budgets.”