On September 27, 2012 world leaders, first spouses, scientists, and members of the disability community gathered at Autism Speaks’ Fifth Annual “World Focus on Autism.”
Bob and Suzanne Wright, co-founders of Autism Speaks, urged attendees to support a new U.N. resolution on autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and developmental disabilities that was introduced by Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina, the honorable prime minister of Bangladesh, during the 67th United Nations General Assembly session. The resolution calls for greater participation of the U.N. in recognizing autism as a public health crisis and encourages Member States to tackle developmental disorders at the local, national and international levels.
“The resolution will help individuals and their families with developmental disorders become a part of our life in terms of economic contribution, social participation and political significance,” Sheikh Hasina said. “We urge you to support, and raise awareness around the new U.N. resolution. With your support, we believe the resolution will be adopted and this small step for a small fraction of mankind will lead to a big leap towards better humanity.”
This year’s “World Focus on Autism” brought together more than 15 first spouses and two heads of state in an unprecedented show of support to raise awareness of autism around the world and encourage collaboration among nations to improve service provision and share best practices. The event was held at and co-sponsored by the Roosevelt House at Hunter College and the Hunter Autism Research, Practice, & Policy (HARPP) Center. The event also featured a virtual art exhibit from people with autism around the globe.
The event assembled one of the broadest coalitions in the organization’s history, with heads of state and first spouses from Albania, Australia, Bangladesh, Croatia, Guyana, the Maldives, Mali, Namibia, Panama, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in attendance. Dignitaries from Cyprus, Ireland, Nigeria, Serbia, South Korea, Turkey and Ukraine were also in attendance. The event was moderated by Sue Herera of CNBC.
Autism Speaks has collaborations in more than 40 countries and is working to help many countries in the developing world provide resources and improve the lives of individuals with autism, including Albania, Bangladesh, South Africa, and recently Panama, which are participants in Autism Speaks’ Global Autism Public Health (GAPH) initiative. GAPH aims to increase awareness, service delivery, and research around the world, with particular focus on early intervention. Her Excellency Mrs. Ban Soon-taek gave opening remarks at the event, and praised Autism Speaks and the GAPH initiative for their tremendous work overseas. Mrs. Ban, along with her spouse U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has been an avid supporter of improving the lives of individuals with autism. On a trip to Serbia earlier this summer, Mrs. Ban visited the Dr. Olga Hadži Antonović daycare center for children with autism in Belgrade and encouraged the country to get involved in GAPH.
“Our collective focus on autism is strong and is growing stronger. Through partnership, outreach and research we can do even more,” said Mrs. Ban Soon-taek during her remarks at the event. “…It takes awareness at the local, national and international levels to ensure that support is maintained for those affected by autism.”
Expressing gratitude to the attending first spouses and other dignitaries for their support, Suzanne and Bob Wright pressed the crowd to get behind the U.N. Resolution. “The only way we will see real advancements is through the ongoing participation of our international stakeholders – the people who are instrumental in producing results that will benefit families,” Suzanne Wright said. “Thank you for giving individuals with autism a chance for a better life.”
Also taking stage at the event was Her Excellency Mrs. Marta Linares de Martinelli, first lady of Panama, who spoke about her country’s increasing commitment to improving services for individuals with autism in Panama and throughout Latin America. She also announced her country’s enthusiasm over their new GAPH partnership with Autism Speaks, and expressed her hopes for the future.
“Our future endeavors will help keep hope and autism together,” said H.E. Mrs. Marta Linares de Martinelli. “With the GAPH initiative partnership we seek to raise awareness, improve access to high quality services and we hope to partner with other countries in Latin America by working together we can share experiences and truly make a difference for those affected by ASD.”
Canadian Member of Parliament Mike Lake was a special guest at the event along with his son Jaden, who is 16 years old and has autism. Mr. Lake gave moving remarks about his work advocating for families affected by autism in Canada, and about the joys and challenges of raising Jaden. Guests viewed a clip of Mr. Lake from the Canadian House of Commons where he spoke eloquently about World Autism Awareness Day. Mr. Lake and his son were interviewed about the World Focus event by CNN, Canada AM and the CBC.
Autism Speaks would like to thank all of the dignitaries and our friends at the United Nations, our event sponsors, the Hunter Autism Research, Practice, & Policy (HARPP) Center and the Roosevelt House at Hunter College for all of their support and for making this fifth year a very memorable one. We look forward to continuing to work together in helping families across the globe!