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Campbell's expensive autism center is money misspent, advocates say

In the weeks leading up to the premier's resignation, the Ministry of Health and Education was urgently fast-tracking construction on a 20 million dollar building for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), according to Dawn Steele, an advocate for children with ASD. "The project was Campbell's personal baby," she told VO in a recent phone interview.

“He wanted to see it happen and asked whether it was a done deal yet. These were meetings involving the Premier’s Office giving explicit directions to senior bureaucrats from the Ministry of Health,” said Steele, who coordinates Moms on the Move, an organization that helps children with special needs and maintains a strong focus on autism.

Steele and Cyndi Gerlach formed Moms on the Move in response to budget cuts in 2001 and the group later became a province-wide sharing and advocacy network.

“Instead of spending $20 million dollars on the building, why not just inject that money into existing programs?” Steel asked.

Two years after the plan for a new building at Sunnyhill Health Centre was launched, the project remains in the preliminary stages. However, zoning for the 20 million dollar development has already been granted by the city of Vancouver. 

Investment in the building at Sunnyhill is a purely “capital investment,” she said. "When plans were unveiled in summer 2008, my immediate reaction was, 'Why are we building this kind of a building in Vancouver?'"

At the time, even Tom Christensen, Minister of Children and Family Development, did not know about the premier's solo mission to launch the expensive project, Steele claimed.

Rich Coleman, former Minister of Housing and Social Development, met with Moms on the Move in fall 2008.

"The way Rich Coleman put it was that he was asked by the premier to deliver this... and it was going to happen,” Steele said.

The building is more of a symbolic solution than a practical one to the gap in support services for autistic children, she said. It will serve more as a landmark to prove to critics that there is a strong and accessible autism program in the province, the autism advocate suggested.

Steele believes that the money could be better spent on other strategies. It could be used as extra funding for an autism support program in the form of speech language pathologists (SLP) and behavioural inteventionists (BI). These professionals can provide one-to-one intervention in the family’s home or community to help the child or adult adapt better to society.  

“It's about going to where they are and when they need it,” Steele said.

The new building will not solve the financial costs of addressing the health and education of children with developmental disabilities like autism, she said. "For example, if you have three children in Fort St. John, it’s very hard to justify keeping a full-time therapist for only three kids."

“It is an economy of scale. You can train as many therapists and share as many therapists as you can, but it just does not make it economically viable for a full-time therapist to serve those children in Fort St. John."

It isn't a knowledge gap, Steele said, but rather a structural issue faced by many small communities.

The government could invest in a number of different strategies to tackle the problem, aside from a new building.

In the school system, special education programs are a key component of the services that a developmentally delayed child could receive. "A major complaint from parents is that their child is in a classroom where the teacher has not dealt with a child with autism before. They don’t have a clue of what to do," Steele said.

Classroom aids also struggle to help children with autism if they have few experiences or limited training working with these children. "They are muddling along but are not really doing an effective job,” she said.

The Provincial Outreach Program For Autism and Related Disorders (POPARD) is funded by the Ministry of Education and is housed by the Delta School Board. "These are just a few portables situated in a muddy playground," said Steele. “This just shows you how important buildings are to serving autism needs.”

“Consultants who work in this program travel all over the province visiting schools to help teachers struggling with how to cope with a child with autism in their class. They teach strategies and write personalized needs for that child with autism, since autism is unique to every individual.” 

An existing program such as this has the capacity “to solve an enormous amount of frustration for parents, students, school districts and teachers, however, it still remains underfunded,” said Steele.

The services and outreach that could be provided are severely rationed. “Only in an absolute crisis where the child is experiencing extreme emotional suffering and distress, could you then call in someone from POPARD,” she said.

Instead of investing millions in a building, you could boost the number of consultants, SLPs, and BIs who travel to different districts, Steele suggested.

"Every one of these consultants could work with the teachers who deal with autistic children. This is the proper method to invest millions in - an existing program, not a place,” she said.

Internal briefing notes have confirmed that POPARD and BCAAN, who are responsible for assessing and diagnosing children who may have ASD, will be included in the center so that they can subsidize the center’s operating costs, Steele said.

"The provincial bureaucrats have warned that if you do that, it will take money away from the services that they offer, whether it’s assessment and diagnosis or the provincial outreach for the education system.”

This will reduce their ability to serve families and will reduce access to direct services instead of increasing them, she said.

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