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New report finds COVID disruptions weighing on children with autism, their families

Researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University say long wait times for services are a contributing factor
Wilfrid Laurier University 5
CityNews file photo

Newly unveiled data complied in a report by Wilfrid Laurier University researchers shows children with autism and their families are experiencing immense strain when it comes to learning and education. The report concluded that a lack of available staff, extremely long wait times for support services and children having trouble adapting to virtual learning as contributing factors to the issues facing families.

Appearing on the Mike Farwell Show on CityNews 570, Janet McLaughlin, associate professor in the Department of Community Health and co-director of the Laurier Autism Research Consortium said the reports findings weren't very surprising. 

"During the COVID pandemic, caregivers faced a perfect storm due to a combination of things that all parents we're experiencing like education shutdowns but, on top of that they also faced really long wait lists for therapy services that they've been waiting for their children. So all of these factors combined to increase mental health concerns for caregivers," said McLaughlin. 

McLaughlin explained back in 2019, a previous study was conducted that found many of the same issues, but the pandemic has simply exacerbated those issues further for parents.

She said quite a lot has changed in terms of the way programs fund the supports children with autism and their families will receive, but very little of that change has actually been felt by families. 

"In 2019, the newly elected Progressive Conservative government announced a major overhaul of the program. Previously it was what was called a "needs" based program where people were assessed based on their clinic needs and this is important in autism because it's a huge spectrum, but the new government came in and announced everyone would be receiving a blanket amount of money either five-thousand dollars or twenty-thousand dollars, based on their age ..." said McLaughlin. 

That change was protested by parents and has since been reverted to a needs based program again, but with some changes. McLaughlin noted moving back to a needs based program was a good step, but the issue lies with the slowness of the current program. 

"The problem is that the new needs based program has yet to full roll out. In fact only, I believe 645 children have been admitted to this new needs based program in all of these years. Whereas more than 50,000 children are still waiting." said McLaughlin 

In terms of recommendations from the report, McLaughlin mentioned two, reemphasizing there are no surprises as they are things parents with children with autism have been asking for for years. The first is maintaining a needs based program so that each child get the level of support they need with reduced wait times. The second is major investments in the education system to ensure that children's needs are meet. 

McLaughlin added, with the upcoming provincial election she hopes issues for children with autism and their families can become part of the conversation.

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