World Autism Awareness Day

Honourable senators, I hope you mark on your calendars that April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. We’ll be on our break at the time; that’s why I’m speaking today.

We are fortunate to have a day officially designated to learn about and demonstrate our respect for those living with autism. The legal and official recognition of that day happened right here in the Senate, and I’m very proud of what we accomplished together, an example of senators doing the right thing for our country.

In 2002, it was estimated that one child in 150 had autism. Today, the disorder affects an estimated one in 68. That’s an increase of 120 per cent. Meanwhile, we hear reports of children waiting years to receive autism support services, often so long that they become too old to benefit fully from those services.

This was a headline of a news story issued only last November: “Over 16,000 children on Ontario wait lists for autism services: More kids are waiting than are getting support.”

Recently, the Ontario government pledged millions for autism services, but I remain concerned it will not reduce those waiting lines. Our 2007 Senate report, Pay Now or Pay Later — Autism Families in Crisis, underscored the need for a national ASD strategy. A strategy would mean the federal government engaging all levels of government in building a national infrastructure for research and surveillance, for supporting all people with autism within their communities and for providing funding arrangements to meet their needs.

In recent years, the federal government has brought about a number of advancement, and I’ve always applauded the previous federal government for bringing them in. Last spring, for instance, it set aside $2 million to create and support the Canadian Autism Partnership to achieve improvements in priority areas. There are also disability tax credits and employment programs for adults with autism, such as Ready, Willing and Able, but the autism community needs more, much more.

It would have been nice to see something concrete for people with autism in this week’s federal budget. I know advocates have spoken to the relevant cabinet ministers, and I am hopeful we will soon see more support.

At the very least, there is a federal responsibility for Aboriginal children and adults with autism. I sincerely hope that with the new money for Canada’s indigenous community, the leaders of that community don’t forget those with autism.

Autism has become so prevalent that it is clearly not about any particular social group, nor is it an issue with a political bent. It is a national issue. We’re all in this together. What we need is a strategy that will guide us all in working collectively in the interests of people on the spectrum and in the interest of our society as a whole.

In this respect, please also mark on your calendars April 18. It is the Monday after the week of our return. It is the day when CASDA, the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, holds its second annual autism summit. Senator Housakos and I, along with CASDA, and certainly MP Mike Lake, will be attending that summit and still pushing for what we deeply care about. There will be autism advocates from all the across the country.

The following day, April 19, there is a noon-hour rally on the Hill called Autism on the Hill. It is hosted by my friend Suzanne Jacobson, a grandmother of two boys with autism. Suzanne is a tireless advocate whose Ottawa programs called QuickStart and KickStart are being replicated across the country.

So, honourable senators, as we head into this Easter weekend, please think of her, her work and her family. And please be there on the Hill on April 19 for her and her family and for those families across the country.

Personally, I will never rest until we have a national autism spectrum disorder strategy. Thank you, honourable senators.