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'These services are critical': Advocates say waitlists for autism supports have skyrocketed in Alberta


Advocates for children with autism say funding is urgently needed to stop Alberta kids from falling through the cracks.

A shortage of clinicians, and red tape and efficiency issues is driving up waitlist times for families waiting for services.

"Alberta used to be, by far, the leader in Canada for services for autism. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case," Dr. Kim Ward of the Society for Autism Supports and Services in Calgary told reporters in Edmonton on Wednesday.

According to Ward, one in 50 children are diagnosed with autism.

"When services are not provided early, lifetime care costs increase. Costs which ultimately impact Alberta taxpayers."

Ward said clinicians that provide services for people with autism haven't received a funding increase since 2014, despite a recent funding increase for frontline disability support workers.

"Our frontline direct care workers include clinicians and specialized consultants. Unfortunately, they were specifically exempt from the frontline funding increases. We assume this was an oversight. We believe professional staff need the same increase other frontline workers received."

She's calling on the government to provide funding before the election, adding she's heard from clinicians that many are considering leaving the autism field because of the challenges.

For families with children with autism, Ward and other advocates say that's devastating.

"Families tell us they might wait as long as a year or more for diagnosis, they might wait a year or more to go through intake to apply for funding, and they may also then be put on a waiting list of a year or more to have services in place. This is a lost opportunity to make sure children can reach their best potential," said Linden Parakin of the Autism Society of Alberta.

"It affects a family’s mental health. It affects their employment."

Katie Kjelland and her four-year-old son Ethan are one of those families.

Kjelland said the family paid for a private diagnosis for Ethan last summer.

She said despite having the resources to get a faster diagnosis than some families, they still waited six months for critical services.

"For us, it was August until February, and that was after a diagnosis. For most families, a diagnosis if you have to go through the public system, you’re usually waiting at least one year."

Ethan now participates in a variety of services, including speech therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioural therapy. Kjelland said it's made a huge difference in his life.

"If we looked back a year ago before we were receiving these services, Ethan was almost considered non-verbal. So Ethan is now talking, he’s listening to instructions, he’s being more socially engaged with us as a family and his peers at school. So these services are critical."

Despite that, she said she's still had to put her career on hold to support Ethan full-time.

"It's a lot of teaching yourself. You have to read a lot, you have to do a lot, you have to do a lot of things by trial and error."

Jeremy Nixon, Alberta's seniors, community and social services minister, released the following written statement in request to a response from CTV News:

“Alberta's government has increased funding in the disability sector by $600 million in the last seven months. This year, we are investing $233 million into the Family Support for Children with Disabilities (FSCD) program. This additional funding will help provide wage increases to front line disability workers, provide a increase to address service providers’ higher administrative costs, and ensures we can continue to fund ongoing demand for supports. We have made significant progress to address the application backlog to the FSCD program and expect the waitlist will be cleared by this fall.”

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Miriam Valdes-Carletti