Autism services advocate: Off the clock with Sharon Gabison

Sharon Gabison and the Ontario Autism Coalition

Sharon Gabison,
Lecturer, Department of Physical Therapy

Sharon has been with the University of Toronto (U of T) since 1995.

What do you do off the clock?

Sharon GabisonI’m the director of a grassroots advocacy organization called the Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC). I lead over 2,300 members in efforts to improve services for children and adults living with autism in Ontario.

For over 15 years, I’ve worked to help our government improve social service, health care, and educational policy. We have rallied at Queen’s Park and have met with the premier of Ontario, ministers, policy advisors, and members of provincial parliament.

Our goal is to create meaningful policy change and help families navigate the maze of services when caring for an individual with autism. For instance, we recently fought to ensure children with autism over the age of five have access to applied behaviour analysis services – intervention supported by decades of research.

What inspires you to do this work?

My 19-year-old son has autism, and I have been advocating for him since his diagnosis at the age of four-and-a-half years old. I used to do this work on my own, but the OAC provides a more formal and powerful way to have our messages heard.

Our organization’s members are comprised of parents, caregivers, service providers, people who are interested in autism, and people who live with autism.

It’s a lot of work, but it just has to be done.

Sharon Gabison, Premier Kathleen Wynne, and members of OAC

When do you find the time to do this advocacy work?

It definitely takes creativity and juggling a lot of competing priorities, but I look at it as a huge investment for the future.

Raising an individual with autism is very time consuming and can be emotionally taxing as you are a constant advocate. I spend a lot of my evenings and weekends with the OAC executive. My two-hour daily commute gives me the opportunity to do my advocacy work.

We have a blast, to be honest. Everyone has such a good sense of humour about life and have their priorities in perspective.

I hear you have a nickname in the OAC.

I do! During an intense meeting with senior policy advisors, discussing how to assess the effectiveness of intervention, I was arguing that a specific tool was not evidence-based.

I used the centuries-old example of how doctors used to taste patients’ urine to see if it was sweet to diagnose diabetes. I said, “This form of assessment is as archaic as tasting pee to test for diabetes!”

Now my executive committee friends call me ‘Sweet Pea.’

Photos: (top) Sharon is second from the right, rallying with members of the Ontario Autism Coalition; (above) Sharon to the left of Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Submitted by Alyson Musial, communications officer at the Department of Physical Therapy