One Saskatchewan autism advocate is calling the new $4,000 in individualized funding a start, but says it isn’t nearly enough to address what she describes as the autism crisis in the province.
The Saskatchewan Party government followed through on the election promise for individualized funding for children under the age of six with autism, allocating $4.2 million in this year’s provincial budget.
Arden Fiala, president of Saskatchewan Families for the Effective Autism Treatment (SaskFEAT), has been fighting for better funding since her own daughter was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a child 11 years ago.
“It’s better than nothing, I guess, but in the same regard, $4,000 is a mere drop in the bucket,” Fiala commented, noting the high costs of support services would eat up the funding very quick.
She said behaviour interventionists or psychologists may charge $145 per hour of therapy for a child with autism. The bigger concern for Fiala is the lack of support services available in rural and northern regions of the province.
“The capacity and resources, as well as the qualified and registered professionals to deliver those services, are lacking or non-existent in this province,” Fiala said.
Living in Shaunavon, she spent years driving her daughter to and from Saskatoon to access services.
“Even if we were given $4,000, there was nothing for her in the pocket of the southwest for the caliber of services and supports that she needed,” Fiala said.
Her daughter is now 20 years old, which is far past the funding’s age limit of six. However, Fiala said she has more questions than answers about how other affected families will get the money they need.
Fiala is also raising concerns about how the province will monitor regulations and standards of care for the families of children accessing this funding.
With the diagnosis of ASD now estimated at one in 68 children, Fiala said the province is in crisis and the funding available so far does not match the growing need.
Province says $4,000 is just the beginning of the roll-out
Greg Ottenbreit, the minister of rural and remote health, explained the $4,000 in new individualized funding is only the start as the province plans to increase the amount each budget year.
“We’re working to expand the program as well; it’s $4,000 this year, based on an estimate of 700 children accessing the program, but in the out years doubling up to $8,000 next year and then increasing between $15,000 to $18,000 in the out years,” Ottenbreit explained.
He added the province also has plans to potentially expand the individual funding to school-age children in the coming years.
Families can begin applying for the individualized funding starting in July, and the province will begin processing the payments starting in August, but they can be made retroactive to April 1.
Ottenbreit said officials from the social services and health ministries have been working to set up the program, along with preparing a registry of official qualified services.
He said the registry will include a wide variety of professional services — including speech patholigists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, social workers, behaviour analysts and support interventionists.
The funding may also be used to pay for things like travel expenses to access services, respite care and therapeutic equipment.
“So a wide variety of programs that are flexible enough to be implemented by the parents as they would see fit best for their own child,” Ottenbreit said.
He noted the funding can even extend to paying for training for parents, which could be part of the solution to the lack of access in rural and remote areas.
“We’ve heard from a lot of parents that they’re OK with doing a lot of the stuff on their own with their kids, they don’t mind that. But the training is very important for them to get the proper training to implement some of those services and those care techniques with their children,” Ottenbreit said. “I think that’s all very important to make sure that it’s accessible throughout the province.”
He added it’s the province’s hope that having more flexible funding for these families may attract more services to regions outside the major city centres, where they may not currently be available.
Ottenbreit said the reason behind limiting the initial roll-out of funding to children under six is because school-age children can access more services through the education system. While this funding is specific to the Ministry of Health, he noted there is other funding available through the ministries of social services and education.