Parties' autism strategies leave advocates 'underwhelmed'
A composite photo of Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.
TORONTO -- During the final days of the campaign, the leaders of two major federal parties were confronted by members of the public who pressed them about their parties’ plans to address the challenges Canadians living with autism face on a daily basis.
A man attending Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign event in Brampton, Ont. on Thursday asked the politician if he would commit to negotiating with the provinces on a plan for the medical treatment of autism. When Scheer responded affirmatively, the man cheered and yelled “Mr. Scheer just committed to medical treatment of autism!”
Later that day, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh comforted a woman at a campaign stop in Welland, Ont. who shared her experience of caring for her son with severe autism and vowed to change the current status quo.
Despite the leaders’ heartfelt reassurances, autism advocates are expressing disappointment with the promises the major parties have made to tackle the issues that affect the approximately one in 66 Canadians currently living with the disorder.
“We are underwhelmed,” Dermot Cleary, chair of Autism Canada, said during an interview with CTVNews.ca on Friday.
Cleary said the autism community has become accustomed to hearing kind words of support from politicians at all levels of government over the past 20 years. However, when it comes to actually implementing strategies to support those living with the disorder, often little or nothing is done, according to Cleary.
“We are getting that strong sense in this election as well,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Conservatives announced they would develop a “comprehensive” national autism strategy in consultation with autistic individuals, autism organizations, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, and Indigenous communities.
If elected, the party would make an initial investment of $50 million over five years to develop the strategy, according to the party’s costed platform.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, the president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a mother of two teenagers on the autism spectrum, said the Conservatives’ plan is essentially a $50-million commitment to conduct consultations that would lead to a national autism strategy.
“I guess my response to that is we don’t need any more consultations,” she said. “We’ve been consulted a lot now. The autism community is really clear on what we want.”
Cleary said he’s skeptical about the Conservatives’ willingness to follow-through on their promise based on how the party dealt with the subject when they were in power before the Liberals.
“It was poor,” he said.
Working with the provinces
What they want, according to Kirby-McIntosh, is federal leadership on issues that fall under their jurisdiction.
While autism advocates understand the delivery of autism services is up to the provinces through medicare, Canada’s publicly funded health-care system, both Kirby-McIntosh and Cleary said the federal government should be taking a leadership role on this file.
“The federal government owns the Canada Health Act and provides provinces with financial resources through the Health Canada Health Transfer,” Cleary explained. “So they're very much involved.”
Cleary said the federal government should be establishing co-ordination between provinces to encourage best practices and ensure that regulations on new and emerging treatments are cooperatively and expeditiously adopted.
Kirby-McIntosh said the federal government could provide leadership on issues such as housing for people with autism, funding research into the causes and most effective treatments for the disorder, and helping to find employment for people with autism, who have alarmingly high rates of unemployment. She also said the federal government could work with provincial governments to encourage more collaboration between them so services don’t drastically differ from one province to another.
The NDP has mentioned some of those issues in their platform, which includes, like the Conservatives’, a commitment to develop a national autism strategy. According to the party, the national strategy will “co-ordinate support for research, ensure access to needs-based services, promote employment, and help expand housing options.”
The NDP vowed to invest $25 million per year to develop the strategy beginning in 2021.
While Kirby-McIntosh appreciated the party’s use of the word “implement” in their platform, Cleary said the NDP’s plan shows a lack of knowledge on the subject.
“Respectfully, the NDP don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “They’ve said something as a strategy to counterpunch and they’ll figure it out later.”
Cleary said he thinks that while the NDP’s proposal shows “some promise,” he feels that it’s about their own self-interest at this stage.
Unlike the NDP and Conservatives, the Liberals didn’t include a formal commitment to develop a national autism strategy in their platform. However, the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance (CASDA), which has been the primary organization advocating for the creation of a national autism strategy, said they received a written commitment from the Liberals on Oct. 5 to develop one. The party didn’t provide a funding plan to accompany their statement to CASDA.
While CASDA interpreted the Liberals’ statement as proof of their commitment, Kirby-McIntosh said she’s not as convinced that the Liberals or any of the other parties will follow-through on their pledges.
“I would politely and respectfully disagree because the nature of the commitments that they've gotten, particularly from the Liberals, I don't think go far enough to merit a checkmark,” she said.
Cleary took issue with the Liberals’ platform pledge to double the Child Disability Benefit -- a tax-free monthly benefit that helps children with disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum. He said that’s not very helpful after the party changed the eligibility criteria to obtain the benefit.
“They’re saying, ‘Oh, here's this commitment. But by the way, we're pruning the bush anyways,’” Cleary said. “We've had people who have been removed from the disability tax credit status based on an arbitrary decision of some bureaucrat in Ottawa who doesn't understand the disorder.”
As for the Greens, while they don’t have an official commitment to address autism in their platform, they have a single line about it in their “Vision Green” policy document on their website. In that document, the party said it plans to “recognize autism spectrum disorder as treatable with costs of behavioural therapy covered by the health care system.”
According to CASDA, Green Party Elizabeth May provided them with a verbal commitment to develop a national autism strategy during an in-person meeting with her on Oct. 5, but the party has yet to update their official platform or offer any plans for funding.
There is no mention of autism on either the Bloc Quebecois or People’s Party of Canada’s platforms. A spokesperson for the PPC said in an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca that health care is the responsibility of the provinces and the party will “respect the Constitution.”
Kirby-McIntosh said that while most of the parties appear to be on board with a national autism strategy, she would have liked to have seen more details about their specific plans during the campaign.
“Everyone has technically said they’re on side with this, but the depth of their commitment, all of them, is still relatively shallow,” she said.
Cleary wants the parties to commit to including autism under the Ministry of Health and to convince autism advocates they will make it a priority.
“The autism community is particularly distinctive because it's a group of people that are quite beaten down,” he said. “These are people who are desperate to hear anything positive, but are getting tired of being managed during an election cycle, or what I call passing of the buck, that it’s not a federal jurisdiction, which is unbelievably tiresome to hear.”