Second Reading of Bill S-211, An Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day

Honourable senators, I will speak briefly — for the third time — on my bill, an act respecting World Autism Awareness Day. This bill has been given different numbers in different Parliaments and has received support and been spoken of generously by many honourable senators, including Senator Keon, Senator Oliver, Senator Mercer and the former Senator Trenholme Counsell. Despite the support this bill has received, it has become the victim of prorogation. I hope that the third time is indeed third time lucky or a lucky charm. Given our light-to-moderate legislative agenda, perhaps we can move quickly on this bill.

I hope you will humour me as I remind you of some of the contents of this bill and why it is important. This bill, as the name implies, will raise awareness of autism, a neurological condition that affects a growing number of families in Canada. Autism now affects more children worldwide than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. Health Canada conservatively estimates that 1 in 150 families live with autism. Others argue that it is closer to 1 in 110.

However, this bill is not about numbers; it is about people, people who need our help. Autism isolates those who have it from the world around them. It is a health issue, but the treatments involve many different therapies and professionals — speech therapists, occupational therapists, educational experts, social workers, and the list goes on. Many of these services are not paid for through our health care system, and they can cost up to $65,000 a year. Some provinces fund autism treatment but, as we all know, there are long waiting lists for treatments and therapies.

While we do not know much about autism, we do know that the earlier treatment can begin, the more successful it tends to be. Imagine for a minute how stressful it would be if your child or grandchild had autism and you knew that they would not receive treatments for several months, or even years, because of waiting lists. Imagine the anguish you would feel.

It is a tragedy when people with autism do not receive timely treatment, because it means that they are denied the tools they need to succeed and contribute to society.

As we learned in the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology and later documented in our report, Pay Now or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis, the stress on families is enormous. Far too many families have to remortgage their homes, work two jobs, or make other sacrifices to ensure the child receives the treatment he or she needs. One parent must often give up a satisfying and well-paying career to be a full-time caregiver and advocate for their child with autism. Financial strain, fatigue and constant worry for their child erode the mental and physical health of parents. They need our help too.

This modest bill to respect World Autism Awareness Day will not change their reality, their day-to-day struggle to find and pay for care, but if a nation for one day acknowledges their reality, they will not feel so alone. On April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, people with autism and their families will feel the respect and admiration they deserve from their fellow citizens.

Such a day will show support, but it will also send a message about autism to those who do not know about this condition. It will be an opportunity for people to learn about autism and recognize that in their community there are families living with autism, neighbours, friends and colleagues who deserve to have their reality acknowledged and supported. Honourable senators, before we can mark World Autism Awareness Day, we need to pass this piece of legislation.

All children have the right to succeed, and we as adults and as lawmakers have the responsibility to ensure they have the tools and opportunities they need to succeed. I remind honourable senators that Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These international conventions commit us to take action to see that children with disabilities enjoy a full life with dignity, self-reliance and full participation in society.

Honourable senators, let us take one more step forward and join the 192 other countries of the world that have made April 2 World Autism Awareness Day.