World Autism Awareness Day

Honourable senators, today is World Autism Awareness Day. The last time I stood before you to discuss Bill S-206, to legally recognize this day in Canada, I spoke optimistically. I said I hoped it would be passed by this date.

It’s April 2nd and the bill is still in parliament, but I remain hopeful. Indications abound throughout this country that Canadians are getting the message about autism. Bill S-206 is now in the hands of House committee members. It has reached this point thanks to the support of senators and members of parliament from all parties.
As much as I would like to thank each of them individually, to cite their kind and informed statements about the national autism crisis, my time is restricted.
How encouraging it is to say: There are too many supporters to acknowledge in a statement!

I don’t feel the need today to highlight the rising numbers associated with autism. We all know that more and more children in Canada and throughout the world are being diagnosed with autism. Each of us has a personal connection with the disorder as well. As a result, we are all much more sensitive about the disorder than we have ever been.

Positive changes are also taking place within the autism community.

Last month, for instance, I visited the Centre for Autism Research, Technology and Education at the University of Victoria, where some pretty incredible software programs are being created for the treatment of autism. The centre’s motto is “new tools for different minds”.

A young autistic boy had a lot of fun demonstrating one of these programs for me. It’s a game called FaceMaze and is a lot like Pac-Man. To move through a maze, you have to recognize and imitate the facial expressions of these little characters that pop up. The computer camera is linked to face-recognition software that assesses if you’re successful. Basically, by challenging autistic players to express anger, joy and other emotions, this tool helps them develop the ability to communicate.

The centre’s director is Jim Tanaka. The co-director is Joseph Sheppard, who is autistic. The centre engages faculty and students, community professionals, and people with autism and their families in the creation process.

The wonderful work being done at this centre is just one of so many great reasons why I am proud to be included in a community that is committed to reaching out to autistic people. Within this community, there is just so much intelligence, imagination and determination. Above all, there is heart.

More people are getting involved all the time. We are uncovering new ways to help autistic people and to break through social complacency.

I hope that people living with autism and their families can see and are encouraged as I am by developments like these. I hope they are assured that they are not alone.
They are important members of our society – not only today, on World Autism Awareness Day, but every day.