B.C. budget does little to reassure concerned families of kids with autism: advocates

B.C.’s budget has done little to ease the anxiety of families who are concerned about upcoming changes to how the province will support children and youth who are on the autism spectrum.

Rob Dr. Rob Gillezeau is a parent of a child with autism and an expert in program design and delivery. He says the budget doesn’t seem to account for the additional kids who will be eligible for support when B.C. changes how services are delivered.

“Unfortunately, the details aren’t really clear. It looks like the dollars are not there to increase support. So, that either means right we expected a future-date government to come up with those dollars, or it means that for kids with autism and other support needs, that they’ll likely have services being rationed in the future,” he said.

Last year, the province announced it will be ending individualized funding for kids with autism. The current model allows parents or caregivers to access government money, and then decide how to spend it. Up to $22,000 per year is available for children under six, for older kids the amount is $6,000. The funding can go toward behavioural interventionists, counsellors, speech therapists, and a host of other approved services.

This will end in 2025. This is one way the province is changing how it supports kids who are neurodiverse or who have disabilities, with the aim of reaching more families and making services more accessible. Key to the new approach is setting up “one-stop family connections hubs” that can be accessed with or without a diagnosis. According to B.C. Ministry for Children and Family Development this program will be based on a child’s “individual needs,” and replace the current “patchwork” model.

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Advocates and parents whose kids have been thriving under the current model immediately voiced concerns that their kids could suffer under the new system.

“Families have had a lot of questions for about four months, since the system change was announced,” Gillezeau noted.

“We know that what’s nice about the system change, is that many more kids will be served. We’re looking at roughly a 30 per cent increase in the number of kids who would receive support. But that left a lot of parents wondering, what does that mean in terms of the budget? Will the budget go up by enough and staffing levels to go up by enough to account for that?”

Those questions, he says, have not been answered.

The budget includes $58 million “dedicated to increases in anticipated demand growth costs for children and youth with support needs,” as well as $114 million “to begin the transition of services to a needs-based system throughout the province.”

Gillezeau says not only does that fall short of the roughly $200 million he estimates will be needed each year, but those totals could also be a mix of existing funding, new funding, and one-time expenditures.

“It’s not entirely clear what is permanent and ongoing,” he said.

“I’m sure government will indicate that more will come down the line. But this is a huge deal for parents. For many families, support for their kid can be a cost that is greater than their rent, or their mortgage.”

While the new system won’t be in place until 2025, Gillezeau says the details should be spelled out now.

“The transition to the hub model is occurring within the next three years. So any type of reasonable, thoughtful approach to policy design would have it all mapped out up front, and this budget would include all of those dollars. Instead, you basically have to sit back and say: either this hasn’t been figured out, which is worrying; or the dollars aren’t forthcoming, which is maybe more worrying.”

Unlike some other parents and advocates, he says he isn’t opposed to the hub model. however, he thinks the province hasn;t done enough to convince parents it won’t come at a cost to their kids.

I think the rough idea of having centrally provided services by government is entirely reasonable. We do that in health care generally, there’s no reason that can’t be done here.,” he said.

“But when other jurisdictions have done a similar move it’s been essentially a way to contain costs. So rather than providing full service, it can be a way to ration service and keep costs down. There’s nothing to guarantee parents that that isn’t where things are going right now.”

The executive director of Autism BC also voiced the organization’s concerns with Tuesday’s budget in a statement posted to Twitter. She echoed Gillezeau’s concerns about how the province will pay for the new system.

“Autism BC is disappointed by the lack of new provincial investment in urgent services for neurodivergent and disabled children and youth ‘left out’ of current programs. We remain deeply concerned about how the BC NDP will fund and operate its new needs-based system,” Julia Boyle wrote.

“While the NDP government claims its 2022-23 Budget is focused on making life better and more affordable for all people in B.C., this is clearly not the case for children and youth with support needs”

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