Karen Simmons

Life With Autism in Canada

Karen Simmons

Autism Today Foundation


Tell us about yourself, where you are from and your connection to autism.

A gemologist by trade, I came to the autism world through my son who was diagnosed at the age of two-and-a-half. At the time I heard the news that he would be supposedly institutionalized, I was not going to have any part of it. I immediately set out on a path to change things for him, his peers, family, and those that surrounded him.

I was born in the U.S. I was in the U.S. Air Force, so you might say determination was my middle name. I traveled from the time I was a youngster, since my mom worked for Pan Am and made fast friends in every country. My dad was an aeronautical engineer who jumped from job to job, including companies like Lockheed, Boeing, Sweringen Aviation, and Piper Aircraft.

I raised my family of seven children. Two are neurodistinct and one happens to be autistic, so that’s what brings me to the autism world after spending two decades in the jewelry industry.

How do people in Canada support people with autism?

Loved ones accept their autistic family members as a general rule. Cultures sometimes throw a curveball into this, as autism may not be accepted in some cultures as an okay way to be. People outside the family unit may be a different story depending upon belief systems, cultural beliefs, and older patterns of being. The needle of understanding and acceptance is finally beginning to move in a positive direction, though it has a long way to go before we see the paradigm shift we need to see, especially with the influx of other people coming into our country.

What do you wish your country did differently for people with autism and/or what is something your country does well?


I wish we could create a fair system for all provinces so that people didn’t feel the need to move interprovincially because their province doesn’t support them. It would be amazing if people could communicate their needs, wants, and desires and be able to have their needs met where they are situated. If the country could place more of a fiscal priority on those with autism and neurodivergence instead of trite, insignificant expenditures that don’t improve the fabric of humanity, we could be proactive and reduce unnecessary costs to society as a whole.


How Autism Advocacy in Canada is Reaching the World

Not long before Covid, the Autism Today Foundation was planning a conference for those with autism and neurodivergence covering topics related to employment. We had ministers, employers, autistic and neurodivergent individuals, agencies, and others talking about issues facing employers and employees on the spectrum. As Covid hit during the conference preparation, we were unable to host the in-person event so had to pivot and move everything online. During this time we learned a lot about creating online trainings.

Events at the conference included interviews and workshops with tips – what to say and what not to say in job interviews, how to act appropriately and follow rules at work, and how to focus on what they do best rather than going for a job that is not going to suit their skill set.

We also created “Keen on Enforcement,” a set of scenarios designed to help law enforcement officers identify people on the spectrum. Oftentimes, people on the spectrum are incarcerated inappropriately as the officers just don’t recognize the signs of autism. We are now endeavoring to bring resources to the communities to teach the officers simple and easy ways to recognize autism. 

Shortly after the event, Autism Today was approached by a large, globally-known music school to create a program for their teachers, as they have been inundated by a large number of applicants with autism or some type of neurodivergence. Stephen Shore, who is a fellow board member, and I subsequently created “Notes for the Music Room,” an instructional program which teaches strategies to help with sensory, social, communication, and behavioral challenges in the classroom.

At the time of this writing, we are preparing for a big initiative at the end of September –  the World Autism Summit. This virtual event will host global leaders in the autism and neurodiversity world, such as Temple Grandin, Stephen Shore, and Louise Sattler, on an unbiased platform for people with autism and by people on the autism spectrum. There will be loads of information and loads of fun, too, with movies and games galore. It is launching from the USA and Canada as we represent both Autism Today Foundation Canada and Autism Today Foundation, Inc. – quite simply, the mission and vision is too big to be contained. We want to move the needle of understanding and success for autism and neurodivergence in the fastest way possible, globally. 

It is a big mission and big vision, and it has to be done – for everyone. If we don’t do it, then who else will?