For almost a decade, Edmonton-Wetaskiwin MP Mike Lake has marked World Autism Awareness Day by making a statement in parliament.
This year, with COVID limiting attendance in parliament, he read the statement via Zoom.
The Awareness Day (April 2) set the stage for World Autism Month, which is observed by the United Nations. On April 8, the UN is hosting a virtual conference about inclusion in the workplace for those with autism. Autism Edmonton is hosting The Greatest Duck Race Ever from April 12-17.
Lake’s 25-year-old son, Jaden, is non-verbal. But he has a voice through how he and his father have made not only Canadians more aware of autism, but people around the world, as well.
It kicked off almost a decade ago.
“The 2012 statement that I made sticks out for me, because, after I did that, it became an anchor for a presentation I do at universities and other places,” Lake says.
That statement was shared with Bob and Suzanne Wright (who passed away in 2016), founders of Autism Speaks, one of the biggest advocate and research organizations in the world. And, while Lake says he never first ran for election with the idea that he would become a global advocate for those with autism, he came to realize that being an MP gave him a unique platform to share his experience as a parent.
From there, Lake brought Jaden to New York and the address of the UN General Assembly. They met with spouses of world leaders at a special event. Because of this, CNN and CBC did stories on Lake’s message.
“It started this next-level outreach initiative on autism awareness,” Lake says. “It’s now changed into a conversation about how we define ‘normal,’ it’s not just autism. So, even though Jaden is non-verbal, it gives him this platform and, I guess, in a sense, I give a voice to that platform. The annual statement is a key part of that and is an anchor to that work and that voice.”
And, how does Lake feel we’ve really progressed in terms of recognizing what autism actually is? He says that, while North America has changed the lens in which it views autism, there are still places in the world where it is seen not as a developmental disability, but as a “curse” on bad families or the result of parenting.
“We’re just in a different place in the continuum in North America. There was a time when, not that long ago, in my lifetime. there were these psychoanalytical approaches, thinking about parenting and the kind of parenting approaches that led someone to have autism. In fact they even referred to something known as, can you believe this, ‘refrigerator mothers.’ They blamed cold parenting, in a sense. We know so much more now in terms of a neurodevelopmental explanation. But that explanation hasn’t reached globally yet.”
Lake speaks in global terms because he is passionate about international cooperation and development. He’s worked in accessibility of youth sport and international development files in both his time as part of the ruling party and in the opposition — Lake was first elected in 2006. And, a lot of his work moves outside of partisan political lines.
Six years before Lake was first elected, the members of the United Nations set a number of Millennium Development Goals designed to reduce poverty globally and improve health outcomes for people around the world. They set aggressive targets for improving education, access to food and water and reducing child and maternal mortality rates — that were supposed to be met by 2015.
But, in 2010, when G8 leaders met in Toronto, they recognized that the world was far behind in hitting those targets. So, at the G8, the Canadian government suggested the Muskoka Initiative, and the member nations voted to approve more than $7 billion US in funding (with over $1 billion coming from Canada) to target the health of infants and mothers around the world.
In 2019, the World Health Organization reported the global mortality rate for children under five years of age was 38 per 1,000 in 2019. Compare that to 1990, when it was 93 deaths per 1,000.
Lake was asked to talk about the initiative to various panels and committees, and he became very passionate about international development — and understood that autism could be part of the discussion. He says with the rising focus on newborn health, with more health-care workers on the ground globally, more people can be educated about autism and other developmental disabilities, and old cultural stigmas can be left behind.
“We can do mass training on developmental disability and, particularly, on autism, and the basics of what it looks like,” he says. “I think we have this ability to rapidly raise awareness of the neurodevelopmental explanation of it, in terms that parents and communities will understand.”