PRINCE ALBERT -- Saskatoon advocates are praising the provincial government’s decision to expand funding for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The province’s 2021-22 budget includes an extra $6 million in autism funding. Children between the ages of six and 11 are now eligible to receive $6,000 a year for autism treatment – that’s in addition to children zero to six years old who can already receive $8,000 annually.

Shannon Hill is a behaviour analyst for youth with autism and other developmental disabilities. She also has a 19-year-old son with autism.

She said she’s happy to see the government expand the age range.

“Just because you’re six years old doesn’t mean you don’t still need treatment,” said Hill.

Autism treatment includes speech pathology, occupational therapy, physical therapy and behaviour analysis. These services aren’t always available in rural communities, so Hill said those families would also have transportation costs.

Hill said her family was “lucky” to afford treatment for her son. However, through her job, she’s seen that not all families have the money.

"It's really, really hard to watch families struggle. To know that they have this block of money that they know that they can use, they can rely on every year, at least then they know they can do something and there's some hope,” she said.

Hill explained that some children will need more treatment than others. Some might need 20 to 40 hours a week, she said, which can cost around $60,000 a year.

“The thing is, you have to have a certain volume of treatment to make a difference,” she said.

“When you don’t have the funds, it’s almost impossible to achieve anything.”

Ideally, Hill said she’d like to see the province expand funding to age 18, and give more money to children in their pre-school years so they can access at least 10 to 20 hours of treatment a week.

“Unfortunately, it all comes down to dollars.”

Lynn Latta, executive director for Autism Services Saskatoon, said there can be long wait lists for free autism services. The organization has a contract with the province, and only charges for some recreational programming.

“For a parent, for a family, once the word autism comes up as a possibly, an option or a reality in their world, if they go online and do any kind of research , the first thing that you will see is the importance of early intervention,” she said.

“It causes a lot of stress to have to wait.”

Latta said the government funding can allow more families to take their children to private practitioners. It also helps private practitioners themselves, who may not have had much of a market prior to the individualized autism funding.

“More private service providers are getting involved and that is just good for everybody – it’s good for our families; it’s good for our education system; it’s good for our health system. The more people that can access the service they need as soon as possible, the better.”

Latta added that the age expansion is helpful for children who may not get diagnosed until after the age of six. Some people are diagnosed as adults, she said.

April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, about one in every 66 youth between the ages of five and 17 have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Fifty-six per cent receive a diagnosis by age six and 90 per cent by age 12.