Published by Senator Jim Munson on 02 April 2011
We have all witnessed the scene. The shrill cries of a young child at the mall. Arms and legs flailing. The mother, powerless against her child's fervour.
An intense scene like this triggers all sorts of responses in onlookers -from amusement to sharp judgment: "That woman can't control her own child!"
I wonder how many of us might wonder: "Could that child be autistic?" A temper tantrum is only one of a collection of symptoms of autism.
Autistic children and their families need our compassion -and this begins with awareness. Today is World Autism Awareness Day, a United Nations resolution in honour of people affected by autism.
Estimates show that autism is the most common neurological disorder affecting children, and one of the most common developmental disabilities.
One in every 110 children in Canada is now being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. How many times in recent years have you heard about a child - a relative, a friend's son or daughter - with autism?
How we deal with this crisis today will affect the fate of these children once their parents can no longer care for them. Not that long ago, people were hidden away in institutions, marginalized from society. If we don't begin planning housing and care options for autistic adults, who's to say we won't see the return of such measures?
It was early in my career as a senator when my own eyes were opened to the plight of autistic children and their families. I met a man demonstrating on the Hill. He told me his son was autistic, and described the challenges he faced every day. I have since travelled from coast to coast, meeting with family members and advocates involved with autism issues. They also describe their fears and desperation for treatment and guidance. I do what I can to advise them and keep them connected and hopeful.
In the absence of strong federal commitment, autism organizations at the local, provincial and national levels are carrying the weight. Here in Ottawa, a shining example is Quick Start, which raises money to provide support and counselling and promotes early screening to determine children's needs. This is the creation of the grandmother of two autistic children, Suzanne Jacobson, who knows first-hand that the wait for treatment can be harrowing, especially since early intervention is key.
In 2007, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology released a report titled "Pay Now or Pay Later -Autism Families in Crisis," a comprehensive study of autism issues. As a Senator who initiated the study and a member of that committee, I heard heartwrenching testimony from parents so desperate to get help for their autistic children.
Many had uprooted their lives and moved to places where care options were significantly better than what they could access in their own home province.
Two recommendations from the report that I consider most crucial are national standards for treatment and research, and a national strategy for equal treatment and services across the country. Courageous actions are now needed to deal with this emerging crisis.
It isn't much to ask that a federal minister sit down with provincial counterparts and representatives from autism organizations to devise a better way to operate. It is time for federal politicians to take a leadership role.
Such courage would rouse this nation and render much-needed comfort to the thousands of Canadians affected by autism.
In 2009, Senator Jim Munson introduced Bill C-211, an Act respecting World Autism Day.