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From the outside, the House of Commons is often viewed through the prism of Question Period, with its faux debating and juvenile jeering. But there are quieter moments when Members of Parliament rise and make heartfelt statements and other MPs actually listen. Such was the case when Mike Lake, a backbench Conservative from Edmonton rose recently and said this:
"Mr. Speaker, April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day and 15 years since my son Jaden was diagnosed. As I have shared many times here, life with autism really is an adventure, unique for every family living with it.
"Our world today is one in which our 13-year-old daughter babysits our 17-year-old son, a world in which I often discover my iPad YouTube viewing history filled with Barney episodes and home video clips of airplane takeoffs and landings posted by random strangers from around the globe, a world in which visitors to our home experience odd and memorable moments, like the dinner this past summer when Jaden suddenly decided to guzzle Italian salad dressing straight from the bottle.
"From time to time, when I tell someone Jaden has autism, they will mention Rain Man and ask if he has some kind of special power. The answer, of course, is yes. No matter what someone's mood is, he can bring a moment of complete joy without uttering a single word.
"I have even seen him bring members from all sides of this crazy place together on occasion, and I cannot think of a more special power than that."
It was a touching statement from a proud dad and MP who works tirelessly to promote autism awareness. The only public official who has done more to promote the cause is Senator Jim Munson, who has been badgering governments, Liberal and Conservative alike, to take autism more seriously for more than a decade.
Mr. Lake's statement should get all of us asking an important question: What exactly is being done to tackle the epidemic of autism?
Since Stephen Harper took power in 2006, two Senate committees and one House of Commons committee have studied the issue and they have all reached the same conclusion: Canada needs an autism strategy.
What we have gotten instead is: 1) a declaration that April 2 will be World Autism Recognition Day in Canada and 2) a promise to do some surveillance, i.e. figure out how many people in Canada have autism.
Wearing the ribbons – the autism ribbon is a puzzle pattern means to reflect its mystery and complexity – and bathing Parliament and other public buildings in blue light are nice symbolic gestures. But they are no substitute for a strategy.
The numbers we have out of the U.S. are downright frightening. Data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that 1 in 50 children aged five to 17 have autism – or, more precisely an autism spectrum disorder. (Autism is not a single condition but the name given to a range of development disabilities that usually involve difficulty with social and communication skills.)
What parents of ASD children know is that getting a diagnosis can be difficult, and getting help can be nearly impossible. In most provinces, the wait for services stretches months, if not years.
A strategy is not a panacea; it won't make those very real problems disappear overnight. But having a plan is an essential element if there is ever going to be a co-ordinated response.
That's why Canada has a cancer strategy and a mental health strategy, two of the most important achievements of the Harper government on the healthcare front. While the government believes delivery of healthcare is strictly a provincial responsibility it has at least conceded, through the creation and funding of these strategies, that it has a role in tackling major societal issues that affect all Canadians.
There is no question autism fits the bill.
So what's the hold up?
Autism groups, like cancer and mental health groups before them, have put aside their differences and presented a united front.
The Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance, a coalition of 40 autism groups, has laid out quite clearly what needs to be in a strategy beginning with decent surveillance data; a commitment to stable funding for therapy throughout the country; and a research program to increase scientific understanding of ASD.
They are the same elements found in an excellent Senate report entitled Pay Now or Pay Later which stressed that "governments must pay now for autism therapy, services and supports in order to obtain the greatest return on investment. Otherwise, they will pay later in terms of much higher costs in future years for welfare, social services and institutional care."
Parliamentarians have even more "special powers" than Mr. Lake's son Jaden. They have the power to act on pressing social challenges like autism.
Is there any real excuse for not doing so?
André Picard is The Globe's health columnist.