Autism advocates and parents from across the country are calling on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to join the Conservatives, NDP and Greens in pledging support for a national autism strategy, if elected on Oct. 21.
Sen. Jim Munson, who first recommended a strategy in his 2007 senate report “Pay Now Or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis,” said his “heart sank” when he saw it was missing from the Liberal platform.
“We worked so hard to get here … I never felt so let down in my life,” he told reporters at Under the Umbrella Tree Education Centre, an autism treatment centre in Toronto.
“It’s a missed opportunity. But there is still time,” he said. “I say to Mr. Trudeau: open up your heart.”
Liberal party delegates passed a resolution in 2016 calling for a federal response. And 34 Liberal MPs have written Trudeau in support of the request, Munson said.
About 500,000 Canadians have the neurological disorder that now affects about one in 66 children, said Debbie Irish, chair of the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance.
The alliance has spent the last 10 years researching and consulting on what a national strategy might look like. Last April, it released a blueprint calling on the Liberal government to commit to improved federal disability tax credits, supportive housing, employment programs, public awareness and research on autism.
“Please, we need this, families need this, individuals need this and we are asking you to take action, Irish said Friday.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh who released his party’s costed platform Friday, has promised to commit $25 million annually towards implementation of a national autism strategy that “will co-ordinate support for research, ensure access to needs-based services, promote employment, and help expand housing options.”
The Conservatives under Andrew Scheer have pledged $50 million over five years to develop a strategy. The move is widely viewed as an attempt to distance Scheer from Doug Ford Conservatives in Ontario, who were forced to backpedal on a February autism plan revamp that sparked parent outrage for months.
The Greens have proposed federal support for autism as part of a five-year $5 billion national mental health, suicide and addictions strategy.
A Liberal party spokesperson said the Trudeau government has spent $20 million supporting Canadians with autism and their families. It boosted investment in the ASD strategic fund, launched the first national autism data report in 2018 and doubled the child disability tax credit to $5,600 a year in the 2019 budget.
“We will continue our record of partnership and investment,” said Joe Pickerill. “This includes working collaboratively, as we have always done, towards a national autism strategy.”
But Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, a parent group that staged a massive rally last March to protest provincial autism program changes, said a federal strategy is needed to ensure families get the consistent support they need.
“After what we’ve seen happen to autism funding here in Ontario, our community is all too aware that programs and services can be upended on a moment’s notice on the whim of a provincial government,” said the Toronto mother of two teens with autism. “That’s why federal leadership on autism is so desperately needed.”
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She said it is “embarrassing” that autism services more advanced in the United States where President Donald Trump last month signed the Autism Cares Act, which allocates funding for research, tracking, screening, professional training and other activities. This is in addition to legislation that forces private insurance companies to cover evidence-based autism treatment, she added.
“I’m no fan of the man facing impeachment,” she said, referring to Trump. “But even he is further ahead on autism policy than our leaders here in Canada. We need to do better.”