In December 2007, the GA unanimously agreed to mark 2 April as World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD) to highlight the need to improve the lives of children and adults who suffer from the condition. On 2 April this year, two panel discussions took place to celebrate the abilities of people with autism at UNHQ in New York. Discussions, followed by musical performances and a film screening, addressed GA resolution 67/82 entitled “Addressing the socioeconomic needs of individuals, families, and societies affected by autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disorders.”
These discussions were co-organized by the Permanent Missions of Bangladesh, Bahrain, India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, in collaboration with the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the Department of Public Information (DPI).
Opening the discussion, Dr. A.K Abdul Momen, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations, stated that “Autism is the fast growing serious developmental disability and since 2002 its growth rate is around 57%.” Claiming that it is time to raise public awareness and to implement strong measures, Dr. Momen reminded participants that autism affects approximately one percent of the world population according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The most effective intervention according to the WHO is early detection to avoid tremendous impacts on children, their families, communities and societies.
In his message to mark the day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed that “international attention is essential to address stigma, lack of awareness and inadequate support structures.” Mr. Ban declared that there is a need for international commitment to help affected individuals in order to progress towards a more inclusive society. Finally, he informed the audience that the General Assembly will hold a high-level meeting on 23 September to address the conditions of more than one billion persons with disabilities worldwide.
Chaired by Ari Ne’eman who serves as Policy and Programme Evaluation Committee Chair for the National Council on Disability, a panel discussion focused on the social and economic impacts of autism. Mr. Ne’eman is also the President and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an advocacy organization run by and for autistic adults seeking to increase the representation of autistic people across society. Mr. Ne’eman insisted on the fact that raising public awareness should first come from autistic people themselves, in part through civil society organizations. The main social consequence of autism is lack of inclusion, a human rights issue. To tackle this problem, Mr. Ne’eman advocated for the “acceptance” of autistic people as a proactive action.
Because autism transcends ethnic, cultural, economic and geographic boundaries, this disability must be considered “global,” said Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D and child clinical psychologist. With rising prevalence comes rising costs, so there is a need to move from awareness towards concrete actions, she stated. Citing a South Korean study, Ms. Dawson suggested that the prevalence of autism may be underestimated globally. She recommended action to overcome barriers as the lack of public health information, awareness, expertise and stigma.
The panel discussions came to an end with a dialogue with the audience. Some activists and members of civil society pointed out the fact that tremendous disparities existed concerning access to healthcare. Proposals arose from the audience to empower nonspeaking autistic children.
Closing remarks were given by Dr. Momen who encouraged the next General Assembly session to propose new resolutions on autism and developmental disorder. UN resolutions would influence governments to take necessary steps for the rehabilitation of autistic children and their inclusion.
On 4 April, following the WAAD 2013 celebration, a related panel discussion was organized by the Permanent Mission of Israel at UN Headquarters. Opening the discussion, Jeff Brez, Chief of Advocacy and Special Events of the Department of Public Information (DPI), stated that “a momentum has been created within the United Nations concerning awareness autism and must carry on.” The panel discussions were preceded by a screening of “This Is My Child.” Directed by Aviv Horowitz, this movie features moving testimonies of families with autistic children, and explores the challenges they face during infancy, after diagnosis and in daily life.
Einat Cassouto, General Director of ALUT, the Israeli National Autism Association, first expounded upon the long-lasting Israeli process to raise awareness on children and adults affected by autism. Ms. Cassouto called for an “urgent need” for budgeting for care and infrastructure, and strong legislative measures at both national and international levels. Hagit Ron Rabinovich, journalist, came forward to present testimony of her life as the mother of an autistic child. She stressed the fact that the prevailing perceptions of autism must change and that public actions should also focus on the social inclusion of parents affected by the disabilities of their children.