Second Reading of Bill S-213 an Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day

World Autism Awareness Day Bill

Honourable senators, it is late in the day, but I wish to speak briefly about Bill S-213, respecting World Autism Awareness Day. In the previous parliament, when I introduced this bill, it received warm support from Senator Oliver, Senator Keon, Senator Mercer and former Senator Trenholme Counsell. They were all generous in their support and remarks. I thank Senator Oliver for once again seconding this bill.

I have since travelled across this country, talking to and working with many autism groups. Recently, I was in Montreal. When I go out, I speak about a national program. We need national leadership. We raise money, $30,000 here or $40,000 there, for various hospitals and research, but there must be a bigger plan, and this bill will go a long way in terms of focusing attention.

I was disappointed that Parliament prorogued before the bill could be referred to committee. It is my hope, honourable senators, that we can move this bill forward, given the light legislative agenda that we have right now, and focus on it in committee.

This bill will raise awareness about autism, a neurological condition that affects a growing number of families in this country. Autism now affects more children worldwide than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. One in 165 families is living with autism, and they need our help.

Autism isolates those who have it from the world around them. Many different therapies are available, but waiting lists are long, and many treatments are not covered by our own health care system, which is a good system. While we do not know very 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 to have a child with autism and know that they will not receive treatment for several months or even years because of waiting lists in the province of Ontario. Imagine, honourable senators, the anguish that would cause. 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.

Waiting lists are not the only barrier to treatment, honourable senators. Cost, too, is a factor. Treatment for autism can cost up to $65,000 a year. Every province has a different approach to funding treatment. Far too many families have to remortgage their homes, get a second job or make other sacrifices to ensure their child gets the treatment he or she needs. You have probably heard about them personally in your own jurisdictions.

The costs for society also increase when treatment is lacking, as honourable senators learned during the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology inquiry into autism that resulted in the report Pay Now or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis.

We learned during that study how autism also isolates those around a person with autism. 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 is a modest bill, to respect World Autism Awareness Day. I know it 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.

Before we can celebrate World Autism Awareness Day, we need to pass this piece of legislation. It seems appropriate to speak to this bill today, just one day after this very chamber was filled with hundreds of school children who came here to celebrate National Child Day with us. The theme, as Senator Cochrane said earlier today, of National Child Day was striving to succeed. All children have the right to succeed and we, as adults and law makers, have the responsibility to ensure that they have the tools and opportunities that they need to succeed.

Senator Cochrane mentioned one of our special guests who stood here on this floor. I wish you were all here to hear what he said. Anthony Curkeet-Green has Asperger’s. He stood in front of us, and we witnessed what he had to say, which was basically that more needs to be done. There have been recent provincial cuts in educational assistants in the classrooms and occupational therapists. This is not a place to cut. We are a caring society. Every teacher makes a difference. We should be thinking of Anthony when we think of World Autism Day.

In closing, 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 persons with disabilities enjoy a full life in conditions that ensure dignity, self-reliance and full participation in society.

Let us take one more step forward, honourable senators, and join the 192 other countries in the world that have made April 2 World Autism Awareness Day. Thank you.