Posted by Andy Shih, Autism Speaks senior vice president for scientific affairs, and Michael Rosanoff, Autism Speaks associate director for public health research.
When better to call attention to the global autism crisis than when you’ve invited 22 heads of state to town? That’s what Panama’s First Lady Marta Linares de Martinelli was thinking. The First Lady helped host the 23rd Ibero-American Summit, just outside Panama City last weekend. The yearly summit draws government officials from the world’s Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries.
First Lady Martinelli, a longtime friend of Autism Speaks, saw the opportunity to educate government leaders on the challenges being faced by autism communities throughout Latin America, Portugal and Spain. With First Ladies from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Spain by her side, she told the audience: “Together, we can make the impossible possible.”
This is the motto of the Ann Sullivan Center of Panama, which the First Lady helped open less than two years ago. Located in the heart of Panama City, it provides services to individuals with “different abilities,” including those with autism. These services include support for the families, employers and communities that embrace these individuals.
Introducing Autism Speaks Global Outreach
At the invitation of the First Lady, we attended the summit and presented on Autism Speaks Global Autism Public Health initiative (GAPH), with the help of Autism Speaks Scientific Advisor Roberto Tuchman. We shared success stories from Southeast Europe and South Asia to illustrate how GAPH can provide a framework for regional collaboration. We discussed its work in identifying and overcoming challenges faced by autism communities. We described how we’ve begun exploring GAPH partnerships with Panama and other Spanish and Portuguese speaking nations in the Americas and Europe.
Visiting Panama’s Ann Sullivan Center
We also had the privilege of visiting Panama’s new Ann Sullivan Center. There, we witnessed the transformative difference it’s making in Panama City. The center is modeled after the Ann Sullivan Center of Peru. The Peru center has 34 years of experience providing autism services and support across the lifespan. It’s also a world pioneer in advancing the career paths of adults with autism.
Both Sullivan centers provide parents with opportunities to learn how to support their children’s development and independence. They train educators and doctors in the identification and management of autism. As you can imagine, these centers have a tremendous reach across their communities and countries.
We were particularly impressed by the successful transfer of the Sullivan Center model from one country to another. The Panama center integrates all the core components of the successful Peru model, with minor adaptations.
This transfer of a successful program between countries is a prime example of how countries can collaborate to increase autism awareness and access to services across regions. Sharing best practices is a key step to accelerating progress around the world. Indeed, this was the theme of First Lady Martinelli’s autism event at the Ibero-American summit.
She has championed the opportunities for the world’s Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries to collaborate to overcome the challenges each is facing in caring for its autism community. Just as the Panama Canal connects the oceans and facilitates world trade, First Lady Martinelli sees Panama playing a pivotal role in bringing the Ibero-American countries together to advance the global autism movement.
We thank her for providing this leadership and momentum.