Changes to the way families of autistic children can access support services have left many in the South Cariboo worried about an uncertain future.
The NDP government in October announced a plan to shift away from the direct funding that autism families currently receive to a “one-stop family connection hub” model, expected to be in place by 2025.
While the changes will expand the accessibility of services to include families of children with other neurodivergent and disability diagnoses, local families who currently use their direct funding to access unique, child-specific programs are concerned their options will be drastically limited under the new model.
“Right now, we have control over our service providers, we can decide who we want to see our children,” said Haley Jarvis, a Williams Lake mother who travels to Lone Butte’s Blue Sky’s Autism Services several times a week with her eight-year-old son, Si. “A lot of us have been through other service providers who weren’t qualified, or weren’t available when we needed them.”
Jarvis noted she spent several years navigating various support structures with very little success until she found the right fit. At Blue Sky’s, service providers offer unique, individualized care and programming depending on the child and family’s needs. Programs include early intervention for pre-school-aged children and home-schooling options to help bridge the gap for kids not quite ready for the school environment, along with speech and occupational therapies and social skills group sessions.
Families travel from as far as Cache Creek and Williams Lake to access Blue Sky’s home-based services, set on a 250-acre ranch, and several of the families who shared their experiences with the Free Press noted their children had made “leaps and bounds” in their development during their time there.
For program co-ordinator and senior interventionist Krysta Stewart – who spent many years working in a clinical setting – Blue Sky’s offers a unique, family-like atmosphere.
“I know the difference between a home environment and a clinical setting,” Stewart said. “The everyday life skills that we are teaching, the kids walk out that door and take those skills with them. And that doesn’t happen in a clinical setting.”
Another aspect of what Stewart offers is parental support, something she said is just as important as the services and therapies for children.
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“If a parent walks in in the morning and I can see they’re a bit shaken, I can get my staff to cover and I can give that parent 100 per cent of my attention,” she said. “Then we send that parent home with the support and tools to use with their child. That’s my biggest fear – how are parents going to get that support if they have to book an appointment to talk to someone?”
The uncertainty, lack of notice and the absence of consultation with the autism community are weighing heavily on families and support workers, Stewart said. Autism BC, along with seven other provincial organizations, has sent a letter to the Ministry of Children and Family Development calling for a review of the decision-making process and to allow for meaningful consultation, noting that the release of information last month has “caused confusion and chaos in the disability sector.”
Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson told the Free Press Tuesday that the funding changes are a “massive issue” for many families, especially in rural BC, where they may be tasked with driving for several hours to access one of the service “hubs” that are in the works.
“People are upset throughout the whole province,” Doerkson said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions and confusion, but in the end, the funding for these families is definitely being cut out by 2025. So we will continue to apply pressure and make these concerns known.”
Doerkson said he would “absolutely” be open to meeting with Stewart and other service providers to discuss the changes that lie ahead for a system he describes as “not perfect, but certainly working.”
Meanwhile, Stewart said she and the 21 families that access Blue Sky’s services will continue to make their concerns known to the community and leaders around the province and advocate however they can to keep at least some of the current practices in place.
“I am in full agreement that all children with diversified needs should have access to all support services,” she said. “I’m not in agreement for those services to only take place at a single hub centre.”