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Charting a Path to Inclusion: Realizing the Promise of Canada’s National Autism Strategy

Senator Jim Munson presents the 3rd Jim and Ginette Munson Award to Siyu (Suzanna) Chen at the 10th Annual Canadian Autism Leadership Summit in Ottawa, April 2024, with Elsbeth Dodman and Kim Ward.

At least 1 million Canadians are Autistic, which is approximately the population of Winnipeg or New Brunswick. Yet, despite that significant number, Autistic people in Canada face significant barriers to full participation in society; encountering discrimination, stigma, poorer health and educational outcomes, and alarmingly low employment rates compared to their non-autistic counterparts. This stark reality violates their human rights and demands urgent action.

In 2023, after decades of advocacy, Bill S-203 unanimously passed through both the Senate and the House of Commons, mandating the development of Canada’s first-ever National Autism Strategy (NAS), aligning Canada with global leaders like the UK and Australia. This legislative milestone signaled Canada’s commitment to establishing comprehensive, inclusive support systems for Autistic people, and their families across the lifespan. It was a watershed moment that, when followed through, will profoundly impact Autistic people nationwide. Furthermore, this Strategy could be a critical step towards meeting Canada’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

For the NAS to succeed, it requires a bold approach addressing critical needs with measurable targets, cross-government commitments, and sufficient funding. This will not be accomplished through the decades-old practice of tokenism, rebranding existing efforts, and consultation activities that serve as nothing more than window dressing and checking superficial boxes. 

Success of this Strategy demands political will and authenticity – demonstrated through clear metrics and benchmarks that track progress toward real change. Success requires effective collaboration across levels of government (acknowledging the complexity of issues crossing provincial and federal jurisdiction), guided by practical plans and cross-ministerial frameworks.  Defining clear roles for government and community stakeholders is equally integral, making sure that the valuable insights and experiences of Autistic people are prioritized, hearing also from  their families, caregivers and those who support them, in order to best shape future policies and programs. 

These changes include significant advancements in key areas such as: equitable access to crucial services and supports, meaningful employment opportunities with opportunities to advance, inclusive housing options, and neurodivergent-friendly education, health, social, and justice systems. By addressing these fundamental issues, Canada can move towards a future where Autistic people receive timely, appropriate care and support, empowering them to thrive and contribute meaningfully to society. 

Currently, significant disparities exist in the availability and quality of services for Autistic people across Canada. For instance, children can face daunting waits of up to 12 months to six years for a diagnosis, delaying access to vital educational and health supports. Diagnosis cannot be limited to a specific age group – autism is a lifelong condition, and there is currently no clear pathway for adults to seek diagnosis within our publicly funded healthcare system, driving many to pay up to $5,000 to access a private assessment – if it’s even available. This not only exacerbates financial strains but also violates the principles of our nation’s commitment to public healthcare.

Autistic people and their families deserve this. They deserve a National Autism Strategy that translates election platform promises into life-changing improvements. Anything less would diminish the resilience and potential of this community. 

A NAS not only benefits the growing number of Autistic people in Canada, but also strengthens Canadian society as a whole. By creating inclusive environments and breaking down barriers to access to services and opportunities, we foster a more equitable and compassionate nation. This Strategy must acknowledge that diversity enriches our communities and enhances our collective understanding and empathy.

We call upon the government to step up to this challenge. To bravely forge a path that prioritizes justice, equity, and the dignity of all Canadians. Bold action and unwavering commitment are essential to realizing a society where every person can thrive and achieve their full potential.

The time to act is now.

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