MONTREAL -- For most people, the delays caused by COVID-19 are annoying or upsetting—things like postponed trips and weddings.

For parents of very young autistic kids, the lost time can be heartbreaking.

The window in Quebec to get publicly funded early-intervention therapy is only open until a child is five years old. For some families, the pandemic means their child is losing his or her only chance to get this life-changing treatment.

“With this pause going on right now, this just gives us the hard truth that… [my son] is going to age out of his eligibility, never getting the chance of early intervention,” says May Al Othman, the mother of a four-year-old boy with autism named Mikael.

The wait in Quebec to receive six months of Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy, often called ABA, can be years. Al Othman put Mikael on the list in 2018, shortly after he was diagnosed with autism at age two.

They were still waiting earlier this year when COVID-19 arrived, and Mikael will turn five in December, meaning he’ll lose out on his six months of therapy. 

After age five, schools are supposed to supply specialized autism therapy, but it often doesn’t happen in the same concentrated way—plus, it doesn’t work as well the older kids get.

“Early intervention is super important,” says Al Othman. 

“Because of the brain plasticity at that young age, getting [the therapy] gives them the skillset that they need—the social skills, the communication skills and life skills that they need.”

Usually, if kids do manage to get intensive therapy at a young age, “it lasts them through their school-age years and even through their lifespan,” she said.

That’s what makes it especially awful for parents to face the fact that their child might miss out.

“They’re losing their chance at becoming more independent in their lives and [to] integrate as members of society,” she said.

“And that’s really frustrating for parents to know that there is a solution out there, there’s therapy that’s available and professionals that can do it, and we just can’t access it.”

It is possible to do some of the therapy by telehealth—ABA therapy is available privately, though often at a steep cost—and parents have reportedly been trying to use this option, with providers reporting an uptick, Al Othman said.

There can also be a benefit to online sessions, since it allows “parents to be really super implicated in the session and learn how things are done, and not just dropping kids off,” she said.

Still, with the waiting list as long as it was before the pandemic, it will be hard to make up for lost time in many ways, she said.