Third Reading of Bill S-203, Federal Framework on Autism Spectrum Disorder Act

By: The Hon. Jane Cordy, The Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard

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Parliament Hill from across the Ottawa River, Ottawa

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, I rise on behalf of Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard to deliver her debate on Bill S-203, as she could not be with us today. She has spoken on autism spectrum disorder on a number of occasions in the Senate.

Honourable senators, I rise today in support of Bill S-203, An Act respecting a federal framework on autism spectrum disorder. This bill will call on the federal government to prioritize a national framework and develop a national autism strategy that will create long-term solutions for autistic people in Canada regardless of where they reside.

Today, I would like to share some of the impactful witness testimony heard during committee that has strengthened the bill, and I hope it will help this bill to be passed. I will also share the importance of reframing disability and autism with a strengths-based perspective and the importance of additions to the bill, such as intersectionality and inclusion.

During the committee stage of this bill, we heard essential testimony from self-advocates. Vivian Ly, the co-founder and organizing member of Autistics United Canada, reminded us that the phrase “nothing about us without us” is not just a saying; it is a call to action. This call to action is meant to be taken seriously and practised by consulting autistic people and including them in all stages of policy development. Senator Petitclerc added an observation that captures this call to action by urging the involvement of autistic people in the framework’s development stage.

Self-advocates gave compelling testimony and urged senators to consider using a strengths-based model for the bill. Vivian Ly informed the committee that the way language is used in this bill is based on a deficit model of disability. They shared that autistic people are not suffering because of autism; they are suffering because of “. . . systemic ableism and a lack of access, acceptance and supports.”

We must shift away from the deficit model towards a strength-based model that affirms and supports autistic people while addressing the systemic issues. These lessons are important for the upcoming development of this framework.

They are also an important reminder to shift our mindset for any future legislation we develop in the Senate that impacts autistic people or other people with disabilities.

Although I supported this bill in its essence to create a national framework, I believed that it needed to be more inclusive. We heard many times from witnesses that a challenge with legislation like this is that autistic people are a very diverse group, and it can be difficult to find the balance of making changes without excluding part of the group.

Inclusivity and intersectionality were important additions that ensure particular attention is paid to create equitable access to services for autistic people with unique cultural, linguistic and regional needs, while steering clear of being overly prescriptive. This addition should guide the development of a framework that considers the barriers faced by autistic people who experience intersecting oppressions such as racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism. Some people at risk of falling through the cracks are Indigenous peoples, especially in the North, or francophone Canadians who require services in French. I believe the changes made at the committee stage account for this diversity and will ensure that more autistic people benefit from the development of the national framework.

In addition to an amendment specifically indicating the necessity of consulting with Indigenous communities, some of the other promising changes made at the committee stage are ensuring:

. . . sustained, accessible and culturally relevant resources, available online and elsewhere, on best available evidence-based information to support autistic persons, their families and caregivers, including information on effective treatments and ineffective or harmful treatments . . .

Honourable senators, when I reflect on the rigorous process my family has gone through to secure a continued support network for my grandson, I saw just how easily people can slip through the cracks without adequate support. I know from experience the constant energy it requires to monitor the services available and to adapt the plan as challenges arise. Not every autistic person experiences the same level of support my grandson has received. That is why I continue to stress the importance of ensuring this national framework is as inclusive as possible and considers all the barriers this diverse group of people experience.

I am very hopeful for the future. Between this framework and the recent announcement of Canada’s first accessibility commissioner, there are positive changes coming for people with disabilities in Canada.

Bill S-203 has the capacity to create enormous strides for autistic people in Canada, and I support the adoption of this bill with the amendments and observations made in committee.

Thank you, asante.


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