Autism

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is obviously to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Leader, you weren’t here a minute ago, but there were a lot of folks here from the autism community across the country. They are very passionate people who are looking to the government for more action.

I preface this question because the Senate does work in wonderful ways; it really does. It’s not that long ago, seven years ago, that we had a report, Pay Now or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis, involving not only Art Eggleton, who was the chair of the Social Affairs Committee at that time, but also Dr. Keon. Dr. Keon acted as a mentor for me to continue to pursue what I had as an inquiry, which ended up being this report, and this is what the autism community is using as a basis for the work that they’re doing. It really shows, Mr. Leader, that we can produce reports together; we can get some action, and we’ve had some action.

At that time, when we published that report, the autism prevalence rate was 1 in 166. When I last spoke, it had become 1 in 88. Last week at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, a 30 per cent increase was announced: 1 in 68. That’s just in a few years, and it’s going to get worse.

Mr. Leader, we’re facing a crisis in this country. Your government has done some things that are very important, but this is about leadership. I’m wondering if your government is ready to now take charge of this situation.

I’m living in an environment in which I don’t care which government; I really don’t.

If somebody takes hold of this matter and shows leadership and moves to a national autism action plan, I would be one happy senator. Is your government ready to take that leadership?

[Translation]

Hon. Claude Carignan (Leader of the Government): Thank you for your question, Senator Munson.

You will understand that even though I am sometimes outside the chamber, at my office, preparing for Question Period, I still listen to the debates and the statements by senators. I want to assure you that I pay attention to the senators’ statements.

Obviously, our government also listens to people in need, particularly, as you point out, families with autistic children.

Our government wants to advance research to help people with autism and their families. Since 2006, we have invested $33.5 million directly into autism research. We have also announced a new research chair at York University who will study ways of improving the treatment and care of people with autism spectrum disorder throughout their lives.

As I have mentioned — and I think you noticed — Economic Action Plan 2014 improves support for people with autism spectrum disorder through investments in the Ready, Willing & Able initiative and the creation of vocational training centres for people with ASD.

The plan also adds the cost of designing personalized treatment plans, including applied behaviour analysis therapy for autistic children, to the list of expenses eligible for medical expense tax credits.

Those are just some of our government’s accomplishments and commitments since 2006, and they reflect our determination to improve the health and quality of life of autistic people and the people around them.

[English]

Senator Munson: Thank you for that answer. In that budget, of course, there were millions of dollars for vocational training, which is extremely important, and employment programs for individuals with autism, with a program called Ready, Willing and Able. I commend the government; I congratulate the government for this. Also, we announced today, because of the Pay Now or Pay Later report, under the Public Health Agency, the first ever surveillance to get our own data. If you can believe it, all of these numbers I talk about come from Atlanta, Georgia, from the CDC.

Yes, this is a step-by-step process, but I’m wondering, Mr. Leader, if your government is prepared to take the next step. For the folks over here in the Senate, the next step is to have the federal government sit down and initiate a federal-provincial conference of ministers. Today, I stood out on the Hill, in front of 200 to 300 people, with Minister Bergen. We were on the same page. We seem to be getting closer and closer to where I think we all want to be. So is your government prepared to call an emergency conference? There is a crisis; there is an epidemic. Wouldn’t it be a good thing, to put it simply and in a sincere way, to have your government initiate this type of conference with the provinces?

[Translation]

Senator Carignan: Senator Munson, as you know, we are taking practical measures, and the achievements and commitments that I listed are examples of those.

I would like to remind you that we also invested over $1 billion in Genome Canada to support leading-edge research in areas such as autism. As part of a partnership with stakeholder groups, we are also encouraging research and working to improve the health of people with autism.

It is therefore important to us in this case, as with most other issues that deserve our attention, to take practical measures that will have an impact on our communities and on the lives of Canadians, particularly those with autism and their families.

[English]

Senator Munson: I have a brief supplementary question to the question I asked. Would you support the idea of a national-provincial conference on dealing with autism? If you can’t quite answer that directly, would you use your office and your leadership to the cabinet and to the Prime Minister to convene such a conference? It really is what the autism community wants, and it is the recommendation that came from both Conservative and Liberal senators in our 2007 report.

[Translation]

Senator Carignan: Senator Munson, since you asked, I will let the Minister of Health know about your concerns and the request that you are making today.