Post and photos by Michael Rosanoff, MPH, associate director public health research & scientific review
Through the Global Autism Public Health Initiative, our aim is to empower local communities to seek out and protect the human rights and public health of their fellow citizens with autism. This includes cultivating more compassionate societies by enhancing autism awareness, building autism health services to improve access to early diagnosis and intervention, and improving scientific understanding of the prevalence and causes of autism around the world. None of this can be accomplished without collaboration, and every part of this mission can yield benefits to communities beyond those where the efforts are taking place.
In an extraordinary demonstration of collaboration, government representatives from eleven South Asian countries participated in the Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia and unanimously adopted the “Dhaka Declaration” to the United Nations.
While the Dhaka Declaration provides a roadmap for cooperative autism activities in South Asia, its implications reach far beyond the region. Whether it is written in English or Bangla, whether you are reading it here in the US or abroad, the language is universal and the message is clear–together we can change the future for all who struggle with autism and developmental disabilities.
Below are selected excerpts from the Dhaka Declaration, accompanied by some of the images I captured while visiting schools, hospitals, and centers for individuals with autism and developmental disabilities in Dhaka City and its rural outskirts. It is my hope that the following will shed new light and offer a clearer perspective on why the global work that Autism Speaks supports is critically important, not only to autism communities in Bangladesh and South Asia, but to the global autism community as a whole. It is my hope that these words and these images touch you as they touched me.
Concerned that, despite increasing evidence documenting the effectiveness of early interventions in improving the overall functioning of the child and long-term outcomes, children and families in need often have poor access to services and do not receive adequate treatment and care …
Deeply concerned at the prevalence and high rate of autism in all societies and regions and its consequent developmental challenges to long-term health care, education and training as well as its tremendous impact on communities and societies…
Recalling that children with developmental disorders and their families often face major challenges associated with stigma, isolation and discrimination as well as a lack of access to health care and education facilities…
Inspired further by a vision that all individuals with autism and developmental disorders ought to receive adequate and equal opportunities to enjoy health, achieve their optimal developmental potential and quality of life, and participate in society…
(We) Adopt this Declaration with the objective of promoting stronger and coordinated actions in the region and globally towards the improvement of access and quality of health care services for individuals with autism and developmental disorders.
I thought you might enjoy seeing a few highlights from Andy Shih and Michael Rosanoff’s recent efforts in Bangladesh. This is a country where resources are very low, and there is a great need to protect the rights and improve the treatment of people with autism. Yet despite few resources, this country is stepping up to improve services for all people with autism in their country. Saima Wazed Hossain from Bangladesh remarked at a recent United Nations meeting that, if Bangladesh can tackle the challenges of autism, any country can. Indeed, it was Bangladesh that co-sponsored the UN conference that brought together leaders from many countries, the WHO, and key White House staff to focus on the needs of people with autism.
Andy and Michael, with the help of several experts from the US, are providing technical assistance and helping galvanize the Bangladesh government and other leaders to improve the lives of people with ASD. What is noteworthy is that this effort requires very little in terms of money from Autism Speaks but can have a transformational effect on an entire country.
Geri Dawson, Chief Science Officer
Autism Conference Ends with High Hopes
The landmark autism conference ended in the city yesterday as its chief architect, Saima Wazed Hossain, hoped that the two-day meet would generate new hopes among the families in and outside the country. Read more …
Call for quality healthcare for persons with autism
An international conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Development Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia adopted the “7-point Dhaka Declaration,” with a call for promoting stronger coordinated actions in the region and globally. Read more …
Autism Meeting Ends with ‘Great Response’
The two-day international conference on autism concluded on Tuesday with pledges from the World Health Organization to support Bangladesh in autism care. Read more …
Autism Speaks participated in the launch of GAPH-Bangladesh and co-hosted a conference — “Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia” — together with the Bangladesh government, the Centre for Neurodevelopment & Autism in Children (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University), the World Health Organization (WHO), and WHO’s South East Asian Regional Office (SEARO). Andy Shih, Ph.D., vice president of scientific affairs for Autism Speaks, provides more background in ‘Autism Speaks Goes to Bangladesh.’
Here is the official press release, International Conference Launches Revolutionary South Asia Autism Network.
Several news outlets provided coverage of the “Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia” Conference. Here are some major headlines:
Sonia Gandhi for South Asian partnership on autism (The Hindu)
Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi on Monday praised Bangladesh’s “path breaking innovations” in micro-finance, education, women’s empowerment and public health as she underlined the need for a partnership in South Asia to provide affordable services to millions of autistic children. Read more.
Meeting on autism begins in Dhaka (BBC)
A two-day international conference on autism has begun in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Experts and policy makers from around the globe will focus on promoting awareness on autism in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. Read more.
Recognise gifted kids as persons: Sonia (bdnews24.com)
The first-ever international conference on autism in the region has kicked off amid tight security and with high hopes of generating ‘greater awareness’ on the plight of the ‘gifted’ children. Read more.
Sri Lanka’s First Lady speaks at the autism conference in Bangladesh (ColomboPage)
Sri Lanka’s First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa addressed the two-day international conference on autism that began today at Ruposhi Bangla Hotel in Dhaka to seek ways to enhance autism related services in Bangladesh as well as in the South Asian region. Read more.
Meet’ll promote autism cause, says Saima (bdnews24.com)
As Dhaka is ready to host the region’s first-ever international conference on autism on July 25 and 26, the child psychologist who envisaged the high-profile meet regards it as a ‘way forward for autism awareness’. Read more.
Better care for autistic children (The Financial Express)
Autism is a disease specially noted in children that afflicts sufferers with varying degrees of mental impairment. Cases of autism are not uniformly the same. Some autistic children are seen to have reasonable intelligence to produce even average results in examination. But others are seen to be performing too poorly in academics from their mental handicaps. One similarity seen among autistic children in their varying degrees of mental capacities is the inability to communicate or form relationship with others. Read more.
Saima Hossain almost always has a smile on her face. It’s there when she juggles the demands of her four adorable children. It was there when she confessed to being nervous before her speech at the United Nations. She even smiled when she asked me, half seriously, “What have you gotten me into?”
It seems the only time Saima doesn’t smile is when she is talking about autism. A licensed school psychologist, Saima knows that the daily struggle of those touched by autism is no laughing matter. When she talks about autism, she is thoughtful and knowledgeable, and her passion to make a difference is palpable. “I see this as my life’s work,” she told me.
Saima Hossain addresses UN diplomats and guests on World Autism Awareness Day 2011
I first met Saima, the daughter of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, two years ago at a World Autism Awareness Day event that Autism Speaks hosted here in New York. I was impressed with her poise and passion even then. But I didn’t get a chance to speak with her at length until last September when Autism Speaks hosted its annual “World Focus on Autism” event to raise awareness among world leaders converging for the UN General Assembly.
We talked about the challenges that individuals and families affected by autism face in Bangladesh, a poor country of over 162 million people in Southeast Asia. Saima conveyed her deep desire to make a difference in the lives of Bangladeshi children as well as all children who struggle with autism. At the end of our long conversation, we agreed to explore bringing our Global Autism Public Health (GAPH) initiative to Southeast Asia.
I can tell you that our collaboration with Saima has already reaped great rewards for Autism Speaks and the families we serve. For example, with Saima’s help, Autism Speaks and Bangladesh’s Permanent Mission recently co-hosted a UN celebration of World Autism Awareness Day. The many world diplomats attending included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. He and other influential guests expressed their solidarity with our cause and listened to a panel of experts and advocates (including Saima) who eloquently explained how international collaboration will speed the answers we need to help all who struggle with autism—including families here in North America.
Next week, I will travel to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Dana Marnane, Autism Speaks’ vice president of awareness and events, and Michael Rosanoff, associate director of public health research. There we will participate in the launch of GAPH-Bangladesh and co-host a conference — “Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia” — together with the Bangladesh government, the Centre for Neurodevelopment & Autism in Children (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University), the World Health Organization (WHO), and WHO’s South East Asian Regional Office (SEARO).
Our goal is to boost regional awareness and advocacy for individuals and families touched by autism. We will be joined in this effort by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and her ministers as well as regional dignitaries including Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi, the First Lady of Sri Lanka Madam Shiranthi Rajapaksa, and the Second Lady of the Maldives Madam Ilham Hussain — all of whom have expressed their desire to learn more about autism and explore how they can collaborate with each other and Autism Speaks.
Michael and I have been in daily contact with Saima in the past two weeks, and her team in Dhaka has been amazing. We’re awed to see this tremendous endeavor take shape, gain momentum, and become one of the region’s most anticipated events. We know this is the beginning of much hard work, even as it is giving us and the autism community of Bangladesh and South Asia a sense of pride and hope for tomorrow.
For news coverage of the ‘Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia’ Conference, visit here.
On Wednesday, April 6, Autism Speaks joined the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the U.N. and the U.N. Department of Public Information at the United Nations to present Solving the Autism Public Health Puzzle: Regional and International Collaboration, a panel discussion on autism. The United States Mission to the U.N. also co-sponsored the event, which was streamed live on the U.N. website. (Watch archived video of the whole event here or view it below).
United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon opened the event talking about the U.N.’s commitment to raising autism awareness and creating greater acceptance. “This day is a call to action for all of us who want a more compassionate and inclusive world,” said the Secretary-General. “We have to raise funds to turn workable solutions into practical actions.”
He was followed by Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations and Mr. Fredrick D. Barton, U.S. Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the U.N. Suzanne and Bob Wright also addressed the several hundred dignitaries and families affected by autism in attendance. They updated the audience on Autism Speaks successful Light It Up Blue Campaign, where 1400 buildings turned blue in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day. A video recapping all of the Light It Up Blue activities ran just before the Wrights’ presentation. Suzanne Wright commented on a new collaboration with the U.N. “Through these kinds of meetings, we are making tremendous headway to increased awareness. This translates to innovative research, improved services and better treatments for families.”
The international coalition in attendance represented a wide array of countries. The participation of the some of the world’s top dignitaries demonstrated a striking endorsement of global efforts to raise autism awareness. Members of the audience, which included Mrs. Ban Soon-taek, wife of the U.N. Secretary-General, took part in an interactive panel discussion on autism moderated by Russ Mitchell, CBS Weekend Evening News and CBS Saturday Early Show Anchor. Panelists included Professor Saima Wazed Hossain, Chair of the National Advisory Committee on Autism in Bangladesh; Shekhar Saxena, M.D., Director, Mental Health and Substance Abuse, World Health Organization; Amy Gravino, Asperger’s Syndrome College Coach and Self-Advocate and Geri Dawson, Ph.D., Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer. The panelists discussed an international pathway to raise global awareness and promote research into this non-discriminative disorder. Amy Gravino was particularly poignant sharing her personal struggles with autism, but concluded her story with a message of hope that visibly resounded with audience members, “It is my wish that individuals with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome all across the world will know their own strengths – the skills, the abilities and things they’re capable of, rather than the things they’re not capable of.”
The event was an amazing show of support for the global autism community and a promise of a longstanding partnership.