World Autism Awareness Day Bill

Second Reading—Debate Adjourned

Hon. Jim Munson moved second reading of Bill S-210, An Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day.

Honourable senators, I would like to assure the house that my bill will not cost one cent; however, if we do not do anything, the cost to our society at a later date will be immense.

I stand before honourable senators to speak about Bill S-210, An Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day. I have introduced this bill twice and each time — for some reason — Parliament prorogues shortly after. Therefore, I am here again to ask for your indulgence and support to declare April 2 World Autism Awareness Day.

Honourable senators may recall that in a previous Parliament this bill received warm support, particularly from Senator Oliver and Senator Keon and from Senator Mercer and former Senator Trenholme Counsell. They were all generous in their support and remarks.

With so much support, I hope this bill can be sent to committee as quickly as possible, so that on April 2, 2009, we can celebrate World Autism Awareness Day for the first time in Canada.

The purpose of the bill is to raise awareness about autism, a neurological condition that affects a growing number of families in Canada and, of course, around the world. According to some reports, autism affects more children worldwide than cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. One in one-hundred and sixty-five 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 are not covered by our health care system.

While we do not know very much about autism, we do know that the earlier the 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 child will not receive treatment for several months or even years because of waiting lists; imagine, honourable senators, the anguish that would cause.

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

Waiting lists are not the only barriers to treatment, honourable senators. Cost is also a factor. Treatment for autism can cost up to $65,000 a year. Each province has a different approach to funding treatment and far too many families have to remortgage their homes, find a second job or make other sacrifices to ensure their children receive the treatment they need.

The cost for society also increases when treatment is lacking, as honourable senators learned from the report of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology entitled Pay Now or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis. Once again I praise the work of Senator Keon and Senator Oliver in our approach to what we are trying to do.

Untreated, autism can lead to a lifetime of exclusion and often results in placing individuals in institutions at a cost far greater than treatment. Autism also isolates those around an autistic person. One parent, as many of us know, must often give up a satisfying and well-paying career to be a full-time caregiver and advocate for his or her autistic child. Financial strain, fatigue and constant worry for their child erode the mental and physical health of parents. Parents need our help, too.

This modest bill on World Autism Awareness Day will not change the reality of families affected by autism. They will still have to fight to get treatments and make sacrifices to pay for those treatments. But if Canada were to acknowledge their reality for one day, those families would no longer 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 communities there are families living with autism — neighbours, friends and colleagues — who deserve to have their reality acknowledged and supported.

Some honourable senators have heard all of this before, but for the 18 new senators, I am, we are, this country is looking for your support. I know that our new colleagues will recognize the scope of this condition.

In the United States, much more is being done to address autism. The Combating Autism Act of 2006 authorizes nearly $1 billion in expenditures over five years to help families with autism. This landmark single-disease legislation recognizes autism for the national health crisis that it is. This funding will double expenditures on existing programs, including a significant increase in spending for research, which, as Senator Keon has said, is a necessary piece to solve the autism puzzle. The funding will also provide states with resources for autism screening, diagnosis and intervention. It will provide for a national screening program so that all children in the United States are screened for autism by the age of two. The new American President, Barak Obama, promises to support increased funding for autism research, treatment, screening, public awareness and support services.

Honourable senators, we need treatments, interventions and services for both children and adults with autism. The title of our report, Pay Now or Pay Later, came from a young man from New Brunswick in his thirties who owns a small computer company. He said, “Look, we either have to pay now or pay later.” That says it all. Would it not be wonderful if Canada could do as much as our neighbour is doing and find even 10 per cent of that sum — $100 million — to help Canadians with autism? Until then, let us at least recognize that autism is serious and affects a growing number of families. Let us declare April 2 World Autism Awareness Day.

All children have the right to succeed, and as parliamentarians, we have the responsibility to make sure they have the necessary tools to do so.

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 children 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 of the world that have made April 2 World Autism Awareness Day.