The International Autism Conference in the Philippines officially kicked-off this morning with a bang! President of the Philippines Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the First Gentleman Atty. Jose Miguel Arroyo gave poignant speeches, both expressing their strong support to address the growing problem of autism that exists in the Philippines. Over 500,000 individuals living here have autism and only a small fraction of those are receiving the services they need. President Arroyo thanked all the participants for being active in the autism community and applauded the efforts of groups like the Autism Hearts Foundation and Autism Speaks. In fact, President Arroyo specifically noted the Philippines’ collaboration with Autism Speaks in launching the Global Autism Public Health Initiative to help address the needs of all Filipinos struggling with autism. It was really an honor to be a part of this touching opening ceremony that included a special performance by a gifted young boy with autism who sang a song in Tagalog about hope and love. In addition, there was a hand lighting moment that truly showed how all the groups – professionals, advocates, and government – are coming together, hand-in-hand, to address autism in the Philippines. Autism Hearts Foundation, the event organizers, provided beautiful Filipino clothing to all the speakers for the opening ceremony. Women wore Kimonas and men wore the barong.
The first day’s speakers addressed the audience of nearly one thousand teachers, parents, doctors and policy makers. The turnout was terrific, giving us an idea of just how strong the desire to learn more about autism is among the Filipino community. Lucky for them the conference speakers are some of the most experienced and well-respected researchers in the world. Their discussion topics today included the changing nature of autism diagnosis, co-morbidities seen with autism, the importance of early identification and evidenced-based treatments.
On a more personal note, we met a young mother today who was attending the conference as part of her education on autism. She is working on her earning her Master’s degree to enable her to better care for her six year-old daughter with high-functioning autism. Her daughter recently put together a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle … with the picture side down! While individuals with autism face many challenges they can often also have many gifts.