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Letter: Autism Society NL seeking increased government funding

The Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism in St. John’s.
The Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism in St. John’s. - SaltWire Network

Autism Society, Newfoundland and Labrador (ASNL), cannot sustain operations without increased government core funding. There has been a 120 per cent increase in the incidence rate for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) since 2002. N.L. has the highest rate in Canada, at 1 to 57. One local research study put the rate at 1 to 46 on the Avalon Peninsula. For ASNL, the increased prevalence means increasing demands from families, professionals and adults with ASD.

Increased demand results in a need for more staff to deliver quality supports. More than 160 individuals (including 40 new participants), registered for our Fall Social Group program — just one program offered.

In 2013, there were just 111 total participants in all programs. In 2018, that number has more than tripled, to 373.

In 2013, ASNL offered programming to just two individuals under age five. Today, there are 70 preschoolers.

In 2013, ASNL offered programming to 49 adults over age 16. Today, there are 120 adults.

In 2018, ASNL’s Engagement staff reached over 19,000, including more than 1,200 first responders since 2016. Staff in all regions assist families in school settings, provide professional development and awareness sessions to organizations, and host conferences/workshops for professionals working with those affected by ASD.

ASNL has responsibility for providing supports – social programs for children, youth and adults; navigation for families; community engagement; advocacy; and job readiness/employment programs. ASNL delivers services that government and others do not provide.

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The Autism Action Plan, mandated weeks after the provincial election in 2015, may be rolled out in these last months prior to the election in 2019. But with a five-year implementation plan, it will take us beyond the 2023 election. It does not include increased core funding for ASNL (now less than it was in fiscal 2012, seven years ago). There are no increased programming supports for headquarters and the regional centres. Just 50 per cent per cent of our $1.6 million annual budget comes from provincial core funding to help ASNL deliver on its responsibilities.

This is for the island only — there is no regional office in Labrador. Requests for assistance to establish an office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay since 2013 have gone unheeded.

The remaining 50 per cent of ASNL’s annual budget is raised by volunteers and staff through multiple fundraising events during the year (i.e. Walk for Autism, Harvest of Hope) and/or garnered through donations and competitive applications for foundation and/or federal/provincial grants.

Unfortunately, ASNL is helping just a small portion of many affected by ASD.

It appears government now wants to further reduce support and provide even less regular annual funding. Officials may even expect ASNL to ramp down programming.

Still, government is doing nothing in the short/near term to replace these supports and services and help the increasing numbers in our communities. ASNL will not abandon those we serve.

ASNL makes a real difference in the lives of people affected by ASD. It delivers on its mission through a highly-trained program staff and senior management team. However, annual budgeted fundraised revenue is down by 50 per cent when compared to three years ago. Any staff layoffs will mean the loss of vital supports for the ASD community.

Challenges facing ASNL in 2018 are huge.

The projected operating deficit in current fiscal 2019 is nearly $300,000 – it’s the lost fundraising revenue. Even in fiscal 2018, with almost that exact amount of additional funding from government, ASNL had a $30,000 deficit. Reducing costs means reducing supports and services at a time when there is already insufficient space and too few staff.

The Elaine Dobbin Center for Autism has long been beyond capacity to accommodate more participants and/or staff. Our provincial government has financially supported new construction of other service facilities in recent years. But onsite renovation and expansion of facilities at Shamrock Farm, designed and costed with a Feasibility Study in 2016, is not supported by this government.

ASNL continues to make a real difference in the lives of people affected by autism. Without a real partnership, and adequate investment, access to programs, supports and services in our ASD community will become more and more limited for families and children, caregivers and professionals. And especially for adults with ASD.                          

Scott Crocker is the Chief Executive Officer of Autism Society NL. He writes from St. John’s

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