World Autism Awareness Day

Honourable senators, I would also like to recognize Suzanne Jacobsen, who is in our gallery. She has single-handedly led an effort here in Ottawa dealing with QuickStart, a program that is very important to all of us and to the autistic children in our city.

Honourable senators, over the past four years I have stood on many occasions to request your support for my private member’s bill, An Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day. Next Tuesday, April 2, Canada will for the first time join over 100 countries worldwide in officially celebrating World Autism Awareness Day.

Ten years ago, I began a journey to help improve the lives of people affected by autism. The people I meet by way of my involvement with the autism community are a constant source of learning and motivation.

In the spirit and perspective of our 2007 Senate report, Pay Now or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis, we can clearly see the life cycle needs of autism spectrum disorders people. The urgency for people and families is intensifying. A child who was 2 at the time of our report is now 8; a child who was 12 is now an adult, 18. The numbers grow. The need for our leadership and follow-up on the report recommendations is critical.

In Canada, we are just beginning to put together a national surveillance of autism program. Mostly, we still rely on American surveillance findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine Canadian numbers. It is estimated that 1 in 88 Canadian children has an autism spectrum disorder, up from 1 in 110 two years earlier. One in fifty-four boys has ASD.

Our federal government has to take more leadership and responsibility. This is a national issue that cries out for a collective effort of politicians and everyone involved in the autism community.

Though researchers are only now taking initial steps to study autism among First Nations youth, they are already alarmed by what they have uncovered. This issue is a federal responsibility, adding to the push for the Government of Canada to take more action.

While we, as a nation, are always increasing and enhancing services and resources for people with autism, we still have a long, long way to go. For children who are 2 to those entering into adulthood, wait times for diagnosis and treatments are excessively long. An estimated 4,900 Canadian teenagers with autism come of age every year. This number and the implications of growing from a child with autism to an adult with autism are hugely daunting. Once children with autism turn 18, they lose their pediatricians. They lose their eligibility for publicly funded speech and language services and behavioural therapy. At 21, they can no longer attend public school. Only a lucky few live in group homes, attend day programs or even have part-time jobs.

Last October, Parliament passed An Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day, and I am humbled by the respect my colleagues, especially in this chamber, and everyone else on the Hill have paid this simple act to strengthen Canadians’ understanding and commitment to helping people with autism. You have contributed to an important milestone and given us a national vehicle for building our capacity to address the autism crisis. On April 2, let us show Canadians living with autism that we respect and admire them and their families and are grateful for their contributions to our society. Let this be an occasion to take stock of what has been accomplished and what we must continue to advocate for. Let us celebrate those progressive Canadian values that guide our efforts.