Limited space in preschool autism program leaves Antigonish family ‘distraught’
Margaret MacIntosh counted on a place in an autism intervention program to get her four-year-old son ready for school.
The Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) program is the program she expected would prepare her son for elementary school this fall in Antigonish, NS. She had already received a letter last year confirming that he was eligible for the six-month program.
But when she inquired when her son might start, she was told his first chance on the program won’t be in time for the upcoming school year.
“We were really upset, really upset,” MacIntosh said. “Their waiting list is so long they’re having trouble accommodating everyone.”
EIBI is a program that provides 15 hours of intervention per week to children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder through a partnership with IWK Health Centre, Nova Scotia Health and Nova Scotia Hearing and Speech Centres.
166 remain on a waiting list
The program, which currently places children born in 2018, has expanded in recent years but still cannot meet the growing demand.
As of February 9th, 255 eligible children born that year were on the list for EIBI.
The program can only place about a third of them in time to complete the six-month schedule ahead of the upcoming school year in September.
This means 166 children are in a position where their families must decide whether to withhold primary school enrollment until next year in order to benefit from the program as well.
“We’ve talked about this before, this is really a decision families shouldn’t be making,” said Cynthia Carroll, executive director of Autism Nova Scotia.
The province has some of the highest rates of autism among five-year-olds in the country. She says it’s one of the reasons so many families seek help.
She calls for a provincial autism strategy to better integrate the system with education and identify gaps in service.
According to EIBI program management, work is already underway to transform the system following a $12 million commitment from the Nova Scotia government last year.
“We are obviously concerned that we are putting families in this situation and that concern has prompted us to engage in further discussions with the Government,” said Heather Osborne-Vincent, EIBI program manager.
A new service model with a broader range of interventions and support is being developed.
“It will focus on families identifying needs and tailoring services to meet the needs of those families,” Osborne-Vincent said.
The Board of Addiction and Mental Health has emailed CBC News a statement acknowledging the difficulties some parents are facing.
“The new and improved services will include a greater number and range of interventions and supports for children and families, reducing waiting times for programs and ensuring children receive the right level of care at the right time,” the statement said.
According to the statement, the province is also participating in a federal, provincial and territorial initiative to develop a national autism strategy, which is expected to be released later this year.
MacIntosh and her partner Joe Sampson have made the decision to send their son to school in September instead of waiting a year for the EIBI program.
His progress after working hard with a therapist and his advanced math skills give them confidence that he can do well, although his language skills are still their main concern.
He is supported by a speech therapist at school and the family are looking for private support in addition to the help they receive from a family member who is a retired teacher.
While the disappointed EIBI won’t be working for her son, MacIntosh said folks at the program and Nova Scotia Mental Health and Addictions have been helpful, as has their local MLA, Greg Morrow.
But she worries about all other families in the same situation. And hopes they will be contacted so they are clear on their options too.
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