When autistic Canadians rejected a proposed “National Autism Strategy”, lobbyists responded by hiring a PR firm

 August 30, 2020

Earlier this month, we received a letter from a PR firm (Manifest Communications) on behalf of the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Association (CASDA), asking us to contact them for a PR exercise that CASDA is doing.

It read: “CASDA has engaged Manifest Communications to advise on a plan to align the community with the development process of a National Autism Strategy in the most efficient and effective way possible. We invite you to take part in consultations with Manifest.”

As an autistic-led disability advocacy organization, we understand clearly that a “communication exercise” with a PR firm is not legitimate consultation–and we are saying no to it.

Background. For several years, CASDA has been lobbying for a proposed “National Autism Strategy,” which is supported by Autism Speaks and several other non-profits and charities.

It appears those groups would like to take the lead nationally and get funding for directing autism services under a model that is based on no-bid, sole-source contracts with no meaningful accountability for evaluation of need or services rendered. To many autistic people in Canada, CASDA’s consortium groups are large and ineffective, focused on a “charity” style that objectifies autistic children, while offering no new approaches to disability.

CASDA and its consortium partners also show a clear resistance to competitive funding models that encourage innovation.

Taking Action Against Sole-source Autism Funding. The proposed National Autism Strategy would make it easier for no-bid contracting without audits or outside data and evaluations. As many of us know, this failed approach to policy is what landed the federal Liberal party in a scandal when they planned to appropriate millions to the WE charity to run a flawed student-internship program, which was then canceled when whistleblowers alerted MPs and the media.

We have alerted MPs and media about the millions of dollars that the government has allocated to autism non-profits without bidding processes–for projects whose need, implementation, and auditing methods are indiscernible. Some would even call them boondoggles. Whatever one calls them, we have connected with MPs about these concerns, including members of the Committee on Government Services and Procurement.

We contacted MPs to discuss these projects and our concerns that the National Autism Strategy would further empower the government to allocate funding to autism non-profits with previously problematic sole-source projects. In addition to questions about contract ethics, CASDA’s consortium organizations do not appear to represent the needs and ideas of the broader autistic community. (See our Report, The $10 Million Website: How Canada’s Sole-source Contracting Betrays Autistic Canadians).

Serving notice. This letter will serve as our notice to the public as well as to Manifest Communications and its client, CASDA that our membership–which comprises thousands of autistic Canadians; parents of autistic children across the country; service providers; and supporters throughout the disability-rights community–firmly reject the proposed National Autism Strategy on 3 main grounds.

  1. Funding Ethics Issues. The proposed National Autism Strategy is based on a system that we believe violates ethical standards for government contracts. That cannot be tweaked or fixed, but must simply be stopped before it goes any further. In our view, the NAS is based on undemocratic principles, in that the Liberal majority decided privately to “approve” the project without ever bringing it up for Parliamentary debate/vote.
  2. Flaws in Service Delivery. The proposed NAS is based on the idea that autistic Canadians need a special “strategy” as though autistic people are akin to climate change or a ParticipACTION initiative. That approach cannot be remediated and should be replaced with robust policy that integrates autistic people into existing disability policy, where autistic people deserve to be included as part of Canada’s disabled community!
  3. Segregation instead of Inclusion. While much of the rest of the world has begun to de-centre older, segregationist “charity” models of autism services, the National Autism Strategy simply perpetuates them. Canada needs to catch up with the Disability Rights movement and make a paradigm shift, built on studying best practices for data collection, need assessment, inclusive services and centering disabled people (rather than non-profit executives) in the development of policy.

Conclusion. In our view, the CASDA lobby has for many years operated on the segregation model of disability funding and services. For this and other reasons, CASDA cannot be the party to broker or “reform” the National Autism Strategy. The National Autism Strategy simply needs to be scrapped, immediately, as a bad idea past its time. Canadian policymakers also need a clear reckoning about how the NAS ever got so far and how the federal government can reform policy to prevent another such near-disaster.

Autistic-led groups in Canada want to be actively involved in consulting, not just present as tokens, to make sure that federal policies reflect our community needs. We ask that the federal government, without brokering by CASDA, reach out to our organization (as well as Autistics United Canada and other autistic self-advocacy groups) to find a better way forward for the inclusion and access rights of autistic/disabled people.

–Autistics for Autistics, Canada