SUDBURY -- Families in the north, who are still trying to navigate changes to the autism programs, while waiting for the new government program to be rolled out next year, are not alone during this transition.

Autism Ontario has service navigators available to help parents through this time of uncertainty.

"Our job is really here to help navigate all families through all the many changes that have been happening with the Autism Ontario Program," said Michelle Bascom, the team lead service navigator in Sudbury for Autism Ontario.

Parents now are expected to register themselves for the Ontario Autism Program, purchase their own ministry-approved services and handle their own funding.

"There is a lot more on their plate right now, and we are really here to help reduce that workload," said Bascom.

Service navigators can help parents work through the system, find services and supports in their community and get on the waitlist.

Bascom explains that if children were previously on the waitlist with a direct service provider prior to April 2019, they do not have to reapply. However, everyone diagnosed after that date is expected to now register themselves.

Sara Kitlar-Pothier, a mother to a 6-year-old on the spectrum and the co-founder of the Northern Ontario Autism Alliance, says the changes have been a lot to manage for parents in the north.

"It's very overwhelming for a lot of parents," said Kitlar-Pothier. "They don't know where the services are, what services could qualify to be paid for with their budgets, what would be made available when the new needs-based program comes into play."

"They're all questions that we just don't have the answers to," she adds.

On top of all the changes and new responsibility for parents, the March 31 deadline for the one-time funding from the province is approaching.

This funding was made available to help get families through this year of transition as they wait for the new program to be implemented in April 2021. 

Kitlar-Pothier applied for the funding and was able to receive money for her son at the end of last year; however, she says it doesn't help provide much security or reassurance.

"I'm looking at a year of service for my son, where I'm having to skimp and save as much as I can, to get as much out of that $20,000 as I can," said Kitlar-Pothier. "Because we don't know what's going to happen after."

She says that most people need between $50,000 and $80,000 a year for autism support services.

"What people need is a lot. And again, we're having to find the services. Manage it ourselves. Manage that money. Try and work with the providers in what's best and the best use of those funds to get as much out of it as we can," said Kitlar-Pothier.

Bascom says if families miss that one-time funding date, they can contact the ministry to see what that means for their child.

"They're not alone," Bascom said.

Autism Ontario service navigators in the north are available in Sudbury, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay.