Autism program closure hurtful

Jan. 31 marked another sad anniversary for children with special needs in B.C.

Last year on this date, early intensive behavioural therapy programs were closed in Victoria, Langley, Kamloops and Kelowna.

Specialists with these programs had been working with and assisting the most severely autistic children in our province. These closures followed B.C.’s Children and Family Development Minister Mary Polak’s announcement in October 2009 that she would cut more than $3 million for autism services for children under age six.

As a result, Victoria’s Queen Alexandra Centre for Child Health laid off 40 highly trained behavioural interventionists and closed its autism behaviour intervention program.

The program made breakthroughs with autistic children, releasing kids from a lifelong sentence of isolation and costly supported living. Intensive behavioural interventionists collaborated with the centre’s occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech language pathologists and other staff to make a successful, long-term experience for autistic children.

The program cost about $70,000 for three or four years of intensive treatment. That investment may seem steep, but studies estimate that if left untreated, caring for autistic individuals over the course of their lives costs about $2 million per person. Put another way, treating 28 children to live fuller, happier lives costs the system the same as one child who goes untreated.

Minister Polak claimed autistic children would still receive adequate services. But parents say the program closure has been devastating. Parents are facing ruinous debts in trying to provide therapy for their children. Children who had been starting to speak in complete sentences while enrolled in the program have now regressed to being non-verbal.

B.C.’s families deserve better. I challenge Minister Polak and her government to explain these cuts.

Reid Johnson, President

Health Sciences Association

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