Autism protest focuses on launch of Jeremy Roberts campaign in Ottawa West Nepean

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In April 2018, Cathy Varrette thought the long wait for autism services for her then four-year-old son was almost over.

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“I remember our CHEO employee saying we were very close to the top of the waiting list and that we needed to think about what kind of services we wanted,” Varrette said, as she protested Saturday with other autism families outside the Western United States. Ottawa’s Nepean Conservative Candidates Jeremy Roberts Campaign Launch.

“That was four years ago,” Varrette said. “We’re still waiting. We’ve been waiting since he was two.”

Pre-pandemic, the autism file was one of the hottest potatoes for Doug Ford and the conservatives. The government has made some progress on the file, but it is moving too slowly, the parents say. Fewer than 650 children have been admitted to the new Ontario Autism Program. Another 53,000, including Varrette, remain on the waiting list for services.

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“I’m concerned that we missed many development milestones that could have been achieved if we had the right funding and support,” she said. “I wish they (the Conservatives) did what they promised. I don’t feel like I can trust them. We’ve been waiting for four years and they say, “Elect us and we promise we’ll do it this time.”

The weekend protests are a weekly event for the families as Ontario elections approach. Last week, they picked up incumbent Nepean Lisa MacLeod, who ran the autism program in the early years of the Ford administration. Two weeks ago, they protested outside the Kanata-Carleton office of Merrilee Fullerton, who was the Secretary of State for Children, Community and Social Services when the election was called.

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Autism therapy, such as Applied Behavior Analysis, can be extremely expensive. Kerry Monaghan’s son, Jack, receives 15 hours of ABA therapy per week at a cost of $80,000 per year. It was funded under the previous Liberal government.

Monaghan said the conservative model hands parents checks but gives little guidance on how to use the money, a particular problem for those who have trouble navigating the complex services available.

“It’s so retarded,” she said. “It is the responsibility of families to decide what they need. You don’t go to your GP and say, ‘My head hurts’ and they say, ‘Here’s $30,000. Go find someone who can help you.’ That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

The conservative plan has age limits that allow some children to “get older” without support and relies on algorithms and questionnaires to determine what services will be provided, she said.

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As the protesters marched and waved placards, Roberts was inside launching his reelection campaign into a hall packed with dozens of supporters, including conservative stalwarts John Yakabuski (Renfrew-Npissing-Pembroke) and Steve Clark (Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes).

Roberts, who won Ottawa West Nepean in 2018 by just 175 votes, defended the Ontario Autism Program from conservatives.

“This is why I’m running for elected office, to make sure we do a better job supporting children with special needs,” said Roberts, whose younger brother has autism. “I’d say we’re in much better shape today than we were four years ago.”

Conservatives, he said, have doubled the budget for autism services to $600 million and made interim funding available to families on the waiting list as the new program rolled out. Another $97 million will be spent on children with special needs and other medical conditions, he said, along with funding for a new “one door for care” building at CHEO to house all of its autism services.

“That’s a huge step forward for Ottawa,” he said.

Ontario elections are on June 2.

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