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OPINION
Senators call for federal autism strategy: Sen. Bernard
April 2, 2017

Canada needs a national autism spectrum disorder strategy to ensure children are diagnosed early and to prevent thousands of children from falling through the cracks. Unless we take action now, thousands more will continue to fall through the cracks.

Many Canadians are already working hard to address this crisis. For instance, Suzanne Jacobson is founder and president of Ottawa’s QuickStart – Early Intervention for Autism, which raises awareness and initiates programs to cut wait times, build capacity, and promote improvements in early identification and intervention.

Yet despite all the work that has been done, there is still much stigma and silence around autism. Consequently, this often leads to a lack of diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders in the early years. That, as we have learned, is the crucial period for assisting children with autism so that they can reach their full potential.

This is especially significant for families who live on the margins — in neighbourhoods of deep poverty, as well as racialized and immigrant communities.

For example, we need to improve at bringing knowledge, awareness, analysis and action, to African-Canadians about autism spectrum disorder. This includes recognizing the additional burden of race and racism, as well as the barriers that African-Canadian children and adults with autism spectrum disorder must deal with over the course of their lifetime.

As a grandmother of two amazing boys — one who lives with autism and his older brother who has an acquired brain injury — I am painfully aware of the multiple barriers that they face now and that they will face in the future.

As a family, along with their parents, we use all our resources to ensure they have the support and programs they need, to ensure they have a bright and promising future.

But private, family resources are not enough. In their new report on the cost of raising children, Campaign 2000 noted that the cost of raising children with disabilities is much higher than average. For families, the financial burden is substantial.

We must be concerned about those children with diagnoses, who have long waiting lists for inadequate public services. We ought to be concerned about those families who suffer in silence because they are not aware of the services in their area or they do not even have appropriate services in their communities.

Every child in Canada living with autism deserves to have early intervention and the level of support they need to live full productive lives. There is an autism services crisis in Canada and we need a national autism spectrum disorder strategy that addresses critical need for funding and policies.

Let’s not be silent but stand together for equal rights for all children and families who are dealing with autism.

Wanda Thomas Bernard is a senator representing Nova Scotia. She is a member of the Senate Committee on Human Rights, as well as the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.