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Autism Around the World: Canada

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Autism Around the World: Canada

by Vicki Harvey and Michelle Samagalski
Autism Asperger’s Digest | July/August 2013

Access to programs and services for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families in Canada is much like buying a piece of real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. In Canada matters of national concern are managed and funded by the federal government while matters of local concern are handled by the ten provincial and three territorial governments. Health care and education are considered local matters, so each province or territory has legal and financial responsibility to provide these services. As a result, each province/territory has created services and programs that best suit its local population (but this does not allow for a uniform program across the country). In addition, the amount of funding and services vary from province to province, territory to territory. What your family can access at different ages and stages depends on where you live.
In recent years, the federal government has begun to hear from and respond to families and others concerned about the needs of persons with ASD. Several national meetings, a study by the Canadian Senate, and regular advocacy on the part of national and provincial autism organizations have created a consistent public voice in the federal government’s ear. Currently the government has committed to developing a national surveillance system to record proper statistics on individuals with ASD in Canada. The proposed system is targeted to be active in 2015.

Early Intervention

Each province has developed an assessment and diagnosis regimen and strives to diagnose children as early as possible. The territories have different approaches: Yukon provides assessment and diagnosis within the territory while the Northwest Territories and Nunavut send children to other provinces for assessment. Once a diagnosis is achieved, a treatment plan can be developed. Publicly funded services for preschoolers diagnosed with ASD are available in each province, but they differ in type of program and length of time a child may stay in the program. All provinces offer a program based on a behavioral model whether that is ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), IBI (Intensive Behavioral Intervention), or PRT (Pivotal Response Therapy). Children will have services for anywhere from 15 to 40 hours a week, for at least a year. The territories again differ, with publicly funded autism preschool services available in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Nunavut does not provide funding for specific autism services at this time.

School-Age Services

The transition to school often means a different focus for autism services. In all provinces and territories, the education system takes over the programming and supports for students with ASD when they are five to six years old. Again, there are no national standards for ASD programs or services and each province or territory develops its own approach. The idea of inclusion has been generally embraced in most places in Canada, although it is recognized that inclusion may not look quite the same for everyone.
All provinces and territories develop an individualized plan if that is what is needed for the student. Some students do not require a full adjustment to their program and will do well with adaptations or accommodations to support their learning style. Other school supports may include professional services, specialized teachers, teaching assistants, learning centers, resource rooms, and self-contained classrooms.
There are certainly limits on services everywhere, with wait times for some services. Urban centers have far more resources than rural ones; however, these also have greater demands on available resources, since more individuals are diagnosed in cities than in the rural areas. Only two of the provinces, British Columbia and Alberta, offer annual funding to families with children 6 to 19 years of age for additional programming.
The increase in the number of students with ASD has resulted in school boards across the country increasing their pool of autism specialists. In addition, the provinces (but not the territories) have developed handbooks (available online) to guide educators, administrators, and parents in meeting the needs of students with ASD.

Support for Autism Families

And what about support for families of children with ASD in Canada? There are active autism societies in most provinces and territories. Autism Society Canada, a national federation of Canadian autism organizations, has representatives from all provinces and territories except New Brunswick and Nunavut. All the societies work to help families find good information and resources. They are mostly staffed by parents who share their knowledge and experience to help others as they try to navigate the sometimes complex systems within their communities. Families can be connected to local autism societies through Autism Society Canada’s Autism Junction Service Directory (a national resource).

Into the Future

Canada has moved forward in supporting early identification and interventions for children with ASD. However, focus must shift to the needs of adults in the autism community. Supports, services, and resources diminish as children with ASD transition into adulthood. Improving opportunities for housing, employment, and quality of living is the next frontier faced by families of people with ASD in Canada.

Vicki Harvey is the Community Outreach Coordinator for Autism Nova Scotia. She has a 22-year-old son with an ASD.

Michelle Samagalski manages the affairs of disabled adults for the Public Trustee of Manitoba. She has a background in finance and law. Her 22-year-old daughter has an ASD.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. sabrina says:

    I live in North Carolina in the US and I need to move to somewhere I can get my son more services. Her he is on Medicaid. They only pay for basic therapies like ot, speech and pt. They refuse to do ABA or the other therapies because they refer to them as experiamental. Where we leave right now I have to drive so far for just regular therapies and his doctor. I want to get somewhere he is going to succeed. and where he can hopefully be independent. Is there any info you can give me? I am single and her we are low income on the poverty level. I graduate in May to be a teacher’s assistant. Is there a need for those there?