2016 Canadian Autism Leadership Summit

Good morning.

Thank you, Minister Philpott, for your thoughtful presentation.

Like many people in this room today, my involvement in the autism crisis has been a journey. When I set out on it more about 12 years ago, most Canadians were unaware of autism.

It is 2016, and here we are at the second annual Canadian Autism Leadership Summit. We have just had the pleasure of hearing from the country’s Minister of Health, whose messages and thinking resonated positively with our goals. Our hopes. And tomorrow, the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, will be in attendance.

Two federal ministers among us. This is indeed a strong, encouraging sign from our government.

The autism community is comprised of thousands of exceptional people and organizations, each with their own distinct insights into aspects of autism. The experience of having autism. What it is like to raise a child with autism. Research. Science. Therapy. Education. Public policy. Advocacy. The list goes on.

Remarkably, we are able to work in sync with one another. There can be no walls separating us if we are going to succeed. Autism is neither a political nor a personal issue. It is a social – indeed, a national – issue. We are all in this together.

From where I stand, facing all of you, I recognize several friends and acquaintances. I recognize too your compassion and sense of social responsibility. We are Canada’s autism community.

There is a point in time when our community took shape. It was in 2007, when the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology released its report, Pay Now or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis. That report described to Canadians the symptoms of the disorder and the troubling experiences of autistic people and their families. They were alone. Isolated from their communities. Desperate for assistance that, all to often, was unavailable.

I refer to this report as groundbreaking because that is truly what it was. It brought to light difficult situations that had been playing out in shadows. It struck a chord, particularly within autistic people, their families and those trying to help them manage the symptoms and the wider social challenges.

More than any other component of the report, it was the call for a national autism strategy that pulled us together. To this day, a national strategy remains the only moral and effective solution to the ever-growing autism crisis.

A strategy would mean this: The federal government engaging all levels of government in building a national infrastructure for research and surveillance; for supporting all people with autism within their communities; and, for providing funding arrangements to meet their needs.

Without the leadership of our federal government, the rate of autism will continue to rise, as will its threat to our public health system. There have been some positive steps forward, though. Our federal government has been waking up – making good decisions.

Enhancements to the Income Tax Act, for instance, such as the introduction of disability tax credits. Investment in a national autism surveillance program. The creation of an ASD research chair. Support for Ready, Willing and Able.

Although it would have been nice to see something concrete for people with autism in the recent federal budget, I am pleased our government is acting on its responsibility for Aboriginal children. I sincerely hope that Canada’s Indigenous leaders will direct some of the new money to those within their communities who are autistic.

When I speak with autism groups, I always assure them that we are making progress. Maybe not as we would plan or expect it, but progress nonetheless.

Last year, the government announced it would invest $2 million to create a Canadian ASD working group. Under the leadership of Minister Philpott, the group is creating a plan for a Canadian Autism Partnership. This plan will include recommendations for addressing key issues impacting those living with autism.

In this, are the very developments we have been seeking for years. The federal government initiating discussions with provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as with non-government members of the autism community. A cooperative approach to identifying priority needs.

The working group has been travelling all over the country, meeting with government officials and policy experts. From what I’ve heard, there has been tremendous, positive openness to participation and collaboration.

If the plan does not itself become a strategy, we have good reason to believe it will lead to one. Working together, guided by our knowledge and fueled by what our hearts tell is right for those with autism – we will reach that crucial milestone: A national ASD strategy.

It is a matter of time and continues to be a matter of compassion, effort and hope. We have come this far. When the Canadian Autism Leadership Summit wraps up tomorrow, we will be even closer.

Like you, I am anxious for the sessions to get started. Thank you all for your attention, for what you do every day for those on the autism spectrum, and for what you will contribute to this event.