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New research brief from Kinark Child and Family Services highlights virtual autism services as an effective and sustainable method for the delivery of quality care

Virtual services prove vital to serving families in rural, remote, and underserved communities in Ontario, helping to support children’s healthcare equity.

Kinark Autism Services, a division of Kinark Child and Family Services (Kinark), has published its latest research brief on best practices in virtual autism services and recommendations to maximize the potential of virtual care to make needed supports more readily available and less costly for families. Kinark is releasing the research brief with the aim of increasing the availability of evidence-based services and support to families in rural, remote, and underserved communities across the province who have been unable to access crucial in-person core services.

Overall, Kinark’s review found that virtual services are an effective and sustainable method of support with outcomes that are comparable to some in-person services. During COVID-19 service shut-downs and in-person restrictions, virtual services were seen to be a necessary, but temporary, adaptation to more traditional in-person services for children with autism spectrum disorder. However, studies have shown that among other benefits, virtual care can reduce appointment wait times, improve collaboration among healthcare professionals, and decrease cost to families. Virtual services can include Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), Occupational Therapy, Speech-Language Pathology (SLP), and support services for conditions commonly associated with autism such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders. 

Kinark believes that sharing information about the effectiveness and appropriateness of virtual services options with families and other providers is important given recent changes to the Ontario Autism Program (OAP), in which families receive government funding directly to purchase the services their child needs. Families in remote and rural communities have fewer options to purchase services with OAP funds when they are relying on in-person services only, due to the dearth of service providers outside larger population areas. For example, York Region has a comparatively high number of service providers at approximately 1 per 86 children, while Durham Region has a low service provider-to-child ratio at approximately 1:176. Additional underserved regions with the opportunity to meet families’ needs by expanding virtual services include Lanark (1:258), Northumberland (1:125), Algoma (1:260), and Cochrane (1:266).*  

“Our research and experience in the sector showed us that many families in need of access to core autism services, particularly in far Northern and Eastern regions of Ontario, face challenges due to location or physical limitations, unlike those in more urban settings with a higher concentration of providers,“ said Scott Bark, Senior Director of Autism Services, Kinark Child and Family Services. “Our hope is that by sharing this knowledge, more service providers can embrace virtual services as a way to reach more individuals in need and optimize treatment outcomes.”  

“Finding the right support for my children with autism was overwhelming in itself, but was made even more challenging when we realized how difficult it would be to consistently attend in-person appointments due to where we live,” said Katherine Guzzo-Foliaro, Research Advisor at Kinark and a contributing author to the research brief. She is also a mother in Sault Ste. Marie whose son will soon receive virtual autism support. “We’re eager to take advantage of virtual services for my son and to support my daughter’s unique challenges the same way, with a lack of options to support her locally. My kids will be able to receive their support in a familiar and comfortable environment, and the time and cost commitment will be much more manageable.”

With its expert-led and evidence-based programming and understanding of the possibilities of virtual services as set out in this research brief, Kinark is committed to scaling-up access to its comprehensive services including virtual care, ultimately increasing its ability to reach under-served families wherever they live in Ontario. Kinark is encouraging other providers across Ontario to do the same to increase the number of families able to access services when they need them.

“At Kinark, we see the expansion of virtual services as the future of inclusive and accessible treatment and support for children in Ontario,” said Cathy Paul, CEO of Kinark Child and Family Services. “We look forward to promoting this kind of practice change in our own organization and with others in our service sector so children and youth with complex needs can achieve better life outcomes.”

For more information about Kinark’s published research, visit kinark.on.ca/enhancing-access-to-aba.

About Kinark Child and Family Services
Kinark Child and Family Services is a leading provider of services and support for children and youth with complex needs and their families. Our mission is to help children and youth with complex needs achieve better life outcomes. Serving nearly 10,000 children, youth, and families throughout Ontario annually, services are provided in the areas of Autism, Child and Youth Mental Health, and Forensic Mental Health/Youth Justice. We are proud of the high-quality, evidence-based, and individualized services we provide to children and youth and their families. Our team is committed to helping families find the right services and resources available to meet their unique needs to support their development and success. Visit kinarkautismservices.ca to learn more about our wide range of autism programs and services.

*Data from the 2021 Census of Population, AccessOAP, and the OAP registrant list (March 2022)