PORT HAWKESBURY: Parents and stakeholders are worried about reductions to a program to help preschool children with autism.

Cynthia Carroll, executive director of Autism Nova Scotia, told The Reporter the Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (EIBI) program is typically one year, but due to the impact of COVID-19, it has been reduced to six months.

She said the provincial government recently added a one-time investment of $3 million to ensure all preschoolers within the 2015 birth year would receive six months of EIBI, otherwise Carroll said, many would not have received any service.

“Autism Nova Scotia has always stated that families should have the option to receive a full 12 months of EIBI,” Carroll said. “No child should miss a crucial intervention window and families should have access to 100 per cent of the intervention that is available. A more sustainable plan needs to be explored.”

The Strait Area Chapter of Autism Nova Scotia, serves the counties of Inverness, Richmond, Guysborough, and Antigonish. Autism support coordinator Natalie Stevens called the EIBI excellent.

“They work very closely with the team of doctors and professionals you’re already working with, so that everybody is consistent in what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s extensive. There are a lot of hands in it. Everybody gets on the same page, so everybody is kind of teaching the same type of thing so that nobody is contradicting each other. They make the parents fully onboard with what you decide is the most important thing to work on.”

Stevens said she knows of local families waiting to be included in the program.

“It is extremely important that the kids get it, it really does help prepare them for school. It helps families also to know what to expect when they go to school. How to help them work on things that they need to go to school,” she said. “It’s helping with structure; it’s really there to help with the structure and things like routines.”

The EIBI also helps students with their transition to the next phase of their education, she said.

“They help with transitioning into the school, and they can go into your daycare with you, they can go into the pre-Primary classroom. They can come into the schools and help the children even in that setting so that they’re prepared to go into Grade Primary.”

Even before the pandemic, Carroll said the EIBI program was underfunded, given the number of children requiring the service.

“The ideal solution is to have children start the program earlier, preferably at age three, so they can complete the full program before they enter pre-Primary,” she suggested. “Families do not have any other publicly funded intervention option offering the same level of intensity as the EIBI program, again putting pressure on both families who are desperate to access support for their child’s needs, and a system that cannot keep up with the increased demand for the service.”

Stevens said the one major problem with the EIBI is inadequate funding.

“It’s a shame,” she stated. “All children should get it. If all children on the spectrum could get it, it would be ideal but unfortunately, some just don’t because they don’t have enough workers, or they don’t have enough time.”

She noted that the province’s intent in changing the term to six months was to provide access to more children, but that creates another problem.

“The kids need to get it at least six months before they start school, so they get it fully. Once they start school, then you’re no longer in the program. That’s the tricky part,” Stevens explained. “The government goes by the children’s birth dates and tries to make sure that everybody is getting it in enough time before that September date when school is supposed to start.”

To prevent “dire consequences for decades to come,” Tausha Butler of Tatamagouche – a single mother of two special needs children – said help is required from both the federal and provincial governments.

Butler said her youngest is non-verbal autistic and currently enrolled in the EIBI program.

“My son has made great progress, but he is still only at stage one,” she noted. “A full year program would ensure I was trained to continue his growth. Each week we see progress. He is becoming more engaged, happier and has less destructive behaviour.”

Describing the program as an intensive year-long, in-home program designed to maximize intellectual growth and communication, Butler said she will lose the EIBI for six months.

“The staff are amazing and I’m heartbroken it will end Feb. 26,” she said. “Due to the lack of funding for staff resources, we are losing six months of this critical support. The most difficult question is what happens to my son without this program?”

Butler said EIBI grew out of in-depth research that determined the length and intensity of the program and activities. From the provincial government’s own research, she maintains that it’s the most cost-effective method in Canada, and the results have been dramatic. Some non-verbal children start to speak, Butler said, noting others communicate using cards with pictures on them. Intellectual and social abilities also increase significantly, Butler asserted.

Her family has started an online petition in opposition to the changes at: http://chng.it/qC254Y8N.

The Strait Area Chapter of Autism Nova Scotia can be found in Port Hawkesbury at 902 Reeves Street, Unit 2, and can be reached by calling: 902-777-1513.