April Statz saw what a long waitlist and the impact of the pandemic had on families who have children with autism or undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder, and knew she wanted to help.
Statz is the autism program manager at the Comox Valley Child Development Association in Courtenay. She knows the waitlist for autism assessments is up to two years; once the pandemic hit, that wait time suddenly became much longer.
“There is so much need; all of the professionals are working hard and nobody wants a waitlist. I had one family come to me and say that even to go to a private (clinic) was now a huge waitlist,” she said.
Statz spoke with Cindy Xavier, the CVCDA’s executive director and to see how the organization could assist. She decided to search for a psychologist for the possibility of hosting an assessment clinic through the association. The timeline for the inaugural Autism Spectrum Disorder Assessment clinic from start to implementation took about three months.
“April had been hearing various stories that families were having to wait and when you think about a wait time for a child for therapy, early intervention therapy, if they aren’t receiving a diagnosis … they could be struggling in their daycare and you want to set that child up for success before they reach school age,” explained Xavier.
For a child, there are two pieces of success for autism services, noted Statz: the assessment and the treatment. With significant time until a child receives an assessment, there is additional stress on the family unit.
The idea to host a clinic was brought to the CVCDA board which supported the idea wholeheartedly.
Statz began cold-calling psychologists to see who might be available; once she was able to find Dr. Andrea Stelnicki with the Vancouver Compass Clinic (she was located in Calgary), families began contacting her about the pilot project. In order to qualify for an assessment, children under six years of age had to have a pediatrician report and a speech-language pathologist report and those over six had to have a pediatrician report referral.
Even though the CVCDA carries their own internal waitlist of clients, they didn’t want to selectively pick families off of their waitlist, Statz noted.
“We wanted this to be addressing a community-wide need because there are other agencies in the Valley, so we wanted to make sure there was fairness there.”
While the CVCDA does not do assessments, they do work to facilitate access. On Sept. 27, they hosted Dr.Stelnicki for one week which allowed 12 families access to assessments. The partnership between the Compass Clinic and the CVCDA allowed families to receive their child’s assessment at a reduced cost for the pilot clinic.
The CVCDA board sponsored travel and accommodations for Dr. Stelnicki while some of the families qualified for assessment funding through the Variety Club.
An assessment for a child under six years old is approximately $3,000; if a speech-language pathologist is needed, the costs could rise to $3,600.
For those older than six, the costs are approximately $2,100.
“All of a sudden, those 12 families are like, ‘We are ready to go,’ ” said Xavier. “They needed to have had seen the pediatrician, they needed to have had seen speech and language – they had everything ready to go, all they were waiting for now is just the assessment, which could take another year or two longer. So that speaks volumes to the need in the community.”
In addition to assisting with the waitlist, Statz explained the clinic can help with families who otherwise would have to travel out-of-town – a challenge for some clients.
“We have a family with one child that started with us recently. And in meeting with them and doing our interviews with them they couldn’t travel (as the child) would freak out when he got in the car. So when you think about some of those barriers as well, travelling can be a huge stress for our families.”
Looking ahead, she said there is a need for an increased number of assessments and would like to help support a similar clinic again in the future. Statz added while there are different ways families can receive assessments around the province, the CVCDA didn’t host the clinic to compete with other agencies, but specifically to meet the community need and to set children up for the best success in their future.
“We just saw an opportunity for us to be able to assist in meeting this tremendous need that that was being brought forward to us,” she noted.
For more information on the CVCDA and their autism program, visit cvcda.ca/programs.