Statements & Speeches

Speech on Bill S-206, An Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day

October 26, 2011

Honourable senators, Bill S-206, An Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day, has benefited enormously from the support and advocacy of Senator Jim Munson. He has pursued his cause with energy and compassion and has listened carefully to the input and suggestions of his colleagues.

On June 3, 2010, Senator Munson appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology and presented a compelling argument for this bill. Since then, he has continued to work tirelessly to see it through. I am sure we all admire him, not only for his determination, but for his compassion for the cause. Senator Munson is a true sponsor and advocate for autism spectrum disorder and I would like to lend my voice in support of his efforts.

Autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD, has many faces. When trying to understanding how ASD affects Canadians, it is important to remember that each case is unique. The Autism Society of Canada puts it best:

The term spectrum refers to a continuum of severity or developmental impairment.

It is this concept that makes ASD especially challenging and difficult to diagnose. ASD can vary by type of symptoms, severity, age of onset, level of functioning and degree to which a person is challenged by social interactions.

How is it that we begin to combat such a complex yet nuanced disorder? It is widely understood that a child can be tested for autism around the age of three or four. However, scientists in the field are almost unanimous in their understanding that signs of autism can appear in children as young as nine months old.

An ongoing study at McMaster University is exploring the science behind early detection and diagnosis of ASD. The early autism study, initiated in the spring of 2005, tracks and monitors the eye movements of babies in their first year of life. Lack of genuine connection with faces of adults around them is a true marker of early ASD. If diagnosed, therapy can begin immediately.

Such studies are invaluable to ASD families. They offer the opportunity to begin treatment while the child’s brain is still developing, and they provide hope to those who are devastated by an ASD diagnosis. Early intervention will not only allow for a jump start with appropriate educational supports and treatment, but it will also give families time to learn how autism will affect their child in the present and what they can expect for the future. The more tools and training that families receive, the better equipped they will be to support and connect with their child.

Although studies like the early autism study at McMaster are contributing to the evolution of our understanding of this complicated disorder, more research is needed. Early detection is a critical area of study. With good information, parents should be able to recognize the signs of autism in their children early on. Once diagnosed, these children can begin a therapeutic process which will help them develop social and communication skills. For example, without appropriate and timely speech therapy, more than 40 per cent of children with ASD do not speak at all.

The Autism Society of Canada estimates there are currently 200,000 Canadians living with autism. This number is alarming in itself; however, it does not begin to capture the complete number of people who are touched by ASD. This disorder also affects family members and caregivers who devote their lives to assisting those living with ASD. Not only do family members work tirelessly to support their loved ones both emotionally and financially, they often initiate their own system of behavioural therapy in the home.

A study from the Canadian Autism Intervention Research Network concludes that parents who participate in a training program focused on joint attention and engagement with their children will see an improvement in communication skills. Another study found that parents who play a role in their children’s treatment, in addition to professional therapy, helped improve cognitive ability and language use. Parent training also improved their knowledge about autism in general. In other words, the role of parents in raising autistic children is very important.

Acting as a primary caregiver to a child with ASD is difficult. A diagnosis can mark a permanent change in the dynamic of a family. Parents can expect to devote countless hours to their autistic children. That is why the Autism Society of Canada encourages families to seek outside help in the form of counselling services and caregiver assistance.

Parents often become ASD experts themselves. We all know a colleague of ours who has become just that. Member of Parliament for Edmonton—Mill Woods—Beaumont, Mike Lake, as well as other parents of children with ASD need to be recognized. This bill is the first step toward achieving that goal.

In his recent speech on this subject, Senator Munson pointed to a significant fact. Although each case of autism spectrum disorder is unique, all parents of autistic children share anxiety about what will happen to their children in the future. Resources that are available for autistic children in schools and community settings may not be accessible to them when they reach adulthood. It is clear that providing opportunities in the workforce is a smart way to help those living with ASD integrate into society and achieve independence. However, as Senator Munson pointed out, the resources for adults with autism are often slim and they can have difficulty finding an employer who is willing to work around the unique challenges they face. The symptoms of adults living with autism can also range in severity. However, one thing is certain; these adults often possess unique talents.

A recent article from the CBC website shares the story of a non-profit software testing company called Aspiritech. It takes its name from a combination of the words “Asperger’s,” “spirit” and “technology.” The idea behind this company is to utilize the exceptional abilities of autistic adults, while embracing the characteristics that usually make them difficult to employ — social awkwardness, poor eye contact and the tendency to be overwhelmed by the workload.

Aspiritech creates a relaxed environment and adapts to the needs of its staff. In doing so, the company benefits significantly from the talents that are common in people with ASD — focus, attention to detail, memory recall and aptitude for working with computers.

The Autism Society of Canada recognizes these unique abilities, describing how people with ASD sometimes have unusually good spatial perception and exceptional long-term memories, allowing them to excel in areas of music, math, physics, mechanics, science and technologies, and architecture. Aspiritech not only offers its employees a sense of accomplishment and belonging, but it also organizes group activities to ease social interactions in the workplace. This story gives us an excellent example of how autistic adults can excel, given the right environment.

Honourable senators, we have heard how early detection and treatment can substantially change the course of ASD in a child. We have heard that it is the parents and the primary caregivers who are on the front lines. We have heard how autistic adults can become happy, contributing members of society.

Before these advancements can be realized, autism spectrum disorder needs to be recognized on a national stage and brought to the attention of the Canadian public. Promoting an understanding of autism in Canada will not only create a more considerate and knowledgeable society, it will also pay tribute to those who are touched by ASD.

Honourable senators, Senator Munson has worked tirelessly to see this bill through. He has appeared before committee and argued his case with compassion and reason. This bill began as one man’s awareness mission and it should end as a testament to the compassion of all Canadians. We stand beside those who are touched by ASD, and we recognize both their struggles and their triumphs. Thank you.