Autism Strategy

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. The question comes from our own Senate Liberal “Your Question Period” initiative. It was submitted by Kathleen O’Grady, an Ottawa-based political and media strategist, author and academic whose articles about autism have been published by many news outlets across the continent. She writes:

Autism is reaching alarming rates in Canada, yet the services to help our children are not there in most parts of the country, despite expert claims that early intervention is key. A few bright spots exist in the country, so in the community it is not uncommon to hear about families in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes uprooting their families to move to Alberta or B.C. where there are often better and more flexible autism services for their children. In other words, we have medical migrants WITHIN our country, leaving jobs, other family behind, just to get the services that they are entitled to by the Canada Health Act.

So instead of this unfair, fragmented and inadequate response to a national crisis — the autism crisis in our country — why don’t we have a national autism strategy in place?


Hon. Claude Carignan (Leader of the Government): Senator, as you know, our government is determined to advance research to help Canadians with autism and their families.

Since 2006, we have allocated $33.5 million to autism research. That includes funding for a national autism research chair to raise awareness of the disorder. In Budget 2014, we invested $15 million to match people with developmental disabilities, such as autism, with jobs.

We also gave Genome Canada one billion dollars to support cutting-edge research in areas such as autism. We also announced nearly $20 million in additional support for NeuroDevNet for collaborative research to develop treatments for children, including those with autism. Senator, I believe that these are concrete measures we have taken to tackle this terrible disability that unfortunately affects too many young Canadians. We will continue to support research in this area.


Senator Munson: I have a supplementary question. With all due respect to the leader, spending money and having a national vision are two different things, but I want to thank him for that response. His government has taken steps but not quite enough, as far as I’m concerned.

This is a supplementary from Ms. O’Grady. She says:

When kids with autism get the early interventions they need — speech therapy, behavioural therapy, occupational therapy — they can learn and thrive. We have the evidence to prove it. This saves governments at all levels countless thousands of dollars per child as they do better in school, adapt better in the community, and go on to lead a more integrated life in our communities.

In other words, it makes both ethical and economic sense to have flexible, integrated and comprehensive services for kids with autism all across our country — so what’s the federal government doing about it?


Senator Carignan: As you know, part of your question relates to provincial jurisdiction. We are supporting research into autism. I would like to point out that our provincial health transfers are the highest in Canadian history. We have allocated an unprecedented $40 billion from now to the end of the decade to ensure stable, predictable funding for the health system and support the provinces in fulfilling their health and social services obligations. The provinces must therefore play a part in supporting autism-related activities like the ones you mentioned. For our part, we will continue to support that research, which we have been supporting since the beginning.


Senator Munson: Thank you for that, leader. It should be a shared jurisdiction. That’s my view about the whole argument about somebody’s jurisdiction. Autism has no borders. There still has to be a national vision and there are no borders when it comes to autism in this country.

I have my own supplementary question. Ms. O’Grady’s questions are very timely. Earlier this week, CBC’s “Go Public” reported on the lack of services for adults with autism and profiled a mother struggling to care for her adult daughter with autism. The long wait times for group homes and staggering costs for other services have left Hope Galloway of Barrie, Ontario, “mentally and physically exhausted.” She is one of many Canadians who might well benefit by relocating elsewhere in Canada, as Ms. O’Grady discussed in her first question.

Your government, in the last budget — and I was happy to see it — proposed to provide $2 million this fiscal year “to support the development of a Canadian Autism Partnership.” Is the disparity in services from one province to another an issue this partnership will address?


Senator Carignan: As I mentioned, health is a shared jurisdiction, and the amounts transferred by the federal government to the provinces are considerable, even record amounts.

For our part, with the cooperation of our provincial partners, we will continue to advance research in order to help autistic Canadians and their families.

I will not repeat the amounts invested, but they are significant and appreciated by the stakeholders.


Senator Munson: Thank you very much. We’re getting there. It might take some time, but we’re getting there. We’re just not there yet.

I have one more supplementary. In that same CBC report, Michael Bach, head of the Canadian Association for Community Living, suggested that the demand for caregivers will outstrip that for police, nurses and teachers. Without action, this means that more and more parents like Ms. Galloway will struggle to care for their children who have mental and/or physical disabilities.

Mr. Bach indicated his organization will push for greater benefits for persons with disabilities in the upcoming federal election. He believes the government should institute a national benefits program similar to Old Age Security for the disabled. I support this proposal.

My question is: Does your government?


Senator Carignan: We also need to respect provincial jurisdictions. However, we intend to continue providing support for research and the creation of a national autism research chair.

Furthermore, for those with autism who are eligible, our government has set up some plans, such as the Registered Disability Savings Plan. If they qualify, they can also receive this assistance, which is very much appreciated by parents of children with a disability.