SUDBURY -- On the same day that a northern Ontario MPP hosted a virtual town hall to discuss the challenges families of children with autism are facing, a new report came out highlighting the top concerns.

Sudbury MPP Jamie West hosted his latest town hall on Wednesday evening, focusing on autism and what the families of those children need.

“The plan is going to come out in April 2021 and we don’t know what to expect,” said Shannon Lavoie, whose six-year-old son, Theo, was diagnosed with autism approximately three years ago. “We’re kind of in limbo right now. So everybody was given kind of a little piece of money for therapy, which is great, but my son needs intensive therapy.”

The Lavoie family is among many across the province anxiously awaiting details of the provincial government’s long-promised autism program. Originally set to be unveiled in the spring of this year, it was pushed back until April 2021.

While families wait, Sudbury-based Child & Community Resources (CCR) organization recently put out its latest report, 'Northern Capacity Building Project Report,' which looked at capacity issues in regions across the north, from Sudbury all the way up to Thunder Bay.

Different strategies

“Each district had a committee comprised of five parents and five professionals from both the private and public sector and together we developed strategies,” said Sherry Fournier, executive director of CCR. “So there’s different strategies for each district and then we have some regional strategies.”

The report was made possible by a grant of more than $800,000. Some commonalities found across northern Ontario include a lack of post-secondary institutions offering necessary training for professionals, geographic hurdles faced by those in outlying areas and basic access to services, which continues to be a struggle for many families.

“The whole purpose of this report was really to … talk to families and providers, public and private, who are delivering service to say what are in fact the real issues and what can we do with this opportunity and funding in the interim to hold on, tightly to the capacity that we have in the system, expand it a little bit and also get ourselves ready for when the new program is announced in April 2021,” said Fournier.

Support for Indigenous, French families

With many cities across the northeast continuing to struggle to meet the demand, a remaining concern is support for Indigenous families and those who wish support offered in French.

Lavoie’s son is said to have a moderate level of autism and has been working with a French therapy provider for some time. While she herself only speaks English, her husband is bilingual and they noticed early on that Theo seemed to respond best to that language.

“What little verbal, limited communication he had was solely in French, so his expressive and his receptive language were only in French, so we needed to seek out somebody that he could understand and communicate with comfortably,” said Lavoie.

West said it is important for him to host town halls in order to hear from his constituents. While he considers this responsibility an honour, he said families are very resilient.

“They are very vocal in defending their kids, just like any parent would be for their children but to the point where other families who are maybe disconnected from the experience of having children with autism, really understand and resonate with that message,” said West.

Despite years of waiting, Lavoie said it’s in her nature to remain optimistic.

“I think if they can, like I said, give our children the intensive, comprehensive therapy that they need, our children would flourish and I think it’s not a hard thing to ask for but that’s basically where we’re at right now.”