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From Geneva: Wrap Up of the Historic 1st WHO Conference on Autism

[slideshow:2, order=top, width=600, height=490, img=|/sites/default/files/images/news/who-round-table-slide-1.jpg|||Attendees of the historic first WHO Consultation on Autism and Developmental Disabilities assembled in the Executive Boardroom of the World Health Organization headquarters this week\, in Geneva\, Switzerland. (Photo courtesy WHO)||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-slide-2.jpg|||Attendees included WHO Director of Mental Health Shekhar Saxena; WHO Assistant Director General Oleg Chestnov; WHO Technical Officer Chiara Servili (partially hidden); University of Wisconsin autism researcher Maureen Durkin; Julian Easton, of the West African-mental health organization CBM; Harvard public health researcher Lynne Jones; and Shoba Srinath, of India’s National Institute of Mental Health||, img=|/sites/default/files/images/news/who-slide-3.jpg||| Teruko Ujita of the Japanese developmental disabilities advocacy organization JDD-Net; Merry Barua Action for Autism\, India; Masako Suzuki\, JDD-Net\, Japan\, Vladimir Kasatkin\, of the rehabilitation center Detstvo, Russia.||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/michael-and-silvasy-slide-4.jpg||| Zsuzsanna Szilvasy\, president of 2013 Autism-Europe Congress\, with Autism Speaks Michael Rosanoff.||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-slide-5.jpg||| McGill University autism researcher Mayada Elsabbagh\, Moroccan researcher Rajae El Aouad and Chiara Servili\, WHO consultant for maternal and child mental health.||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-merry-barua-slide-6.jpg|||Merry Barua\, Action for Autism\, India.||,img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-lesotho-slide-7.jpg||| Michael Labina\, of the Mental Services Ministry of Health\, Lesotho. ||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-jdd-net-japan-slide-8.jpg||| Teruko Ujita and Masako Suzuki of the Japanese developmental disabilities advocacy organization JDD-Net.||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-autism-hearts-slide-9.jpg||| Erlinda Borromeo\, Betty Buccat\, and Joyce Diloy of of the Autism Hearts Foundation\, of the United States and the Philippines.||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-saxena-wittenburg-slide-10.jpg|||WHO Director of Mental Health Shekhar Saxena with Anka Wittenberg, senior vice president of diversity and inclusion at the German software giant SAP\, a major employer of persons with autism. ||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-de-vries-krishnamrthy-slide-11.jpg|||University of Cape Town autism researcher Petrus De Vries, with Vibha Krishnamrthy\, medical director of India’s Ummeed Child Development Center.||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-umanasena-slide-12.jpg||| University of Sri Lanka autism researcher Sumanmalis Sumanasena  ||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-belfer-slide-13.jpg||| Harvard developmental psychiatrist Myron Belfer.||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-workgroup-on-assessment-slide-14.jpg||| The consultation’s Workgroup on Assessment Tools met to discuss the development of practical and culturally sensitive autism-assessment methods for underserved regions.||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-workgroup-on-info-systems-research--evidence-slide-15.jpg||| The WHO Workgroup on Information Systems\, Research and Evidence  ||, img=| /sites/default/files/images/news/who-mayo-slide-16.jpg||| Liliana Mayo of Peru’s Ann Sullivan Center\, a model of lifelong autism care and employment. ||,]

(Unless otherwise noted, all slideshow photos by Andy Shih.)

Posted by Michael Rosanoff, Autism Speaks associate director for public health research. Mr. Rosanoff and Andy Shih, Autism Speaks senior vice president of scientific affairs, are just back from the World Health Organization’s historic first international consultation on autism, at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. 

After spending three days at the World Health Organization Consultation on Autism and Developmental Disabilities, I have never been prouder to be a member of the global autism community and an employee of Autism Speaks.

Over the course of this historic meeting, Andy and I heard so many participants thank Autism Speaks for its leadership and commitment to the Autism Speaks Global Autism Public Health initiative.  Since Autism Speaks launched GAPH more than five years ago, Andy and I have spoken with more than a thousand stakeholders from more than fifty countries, rich and poor, around the world. What we have learned is that the challenges and needs are largely the same, that voices together are more likely to be heard and that anything is possible when we work together. This week’s meeting has given us the platform to transform millions of lives for the better. 

This meeting, in and of itself, was recognition that autism is an urgent global challenge. But it was the passion of the participants – parents, doctors, educators, researchers and government officials, all advocating for global change – that echoed loudest through the executive boardroom at WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Attendees included leaders and visionaries in their respective areas of autism, developmental disabilities and mental health awareness, services and science. The vast majority were established friends and partners of Autism Speaks. They included members of GAPH as well as our Advocacy Leadership Network. The came from Albania, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Panama, Peru, Qatar, Sri Lanka, and South Africa.  The WHO heard their voices loud and clear.

The purpose of this consultation was to develop agreement on the main challenges and key priorities shared by countries around the world in improving autism public health.  Awareness is key, but not without improving access to services.  Governments should be informed by statistics on prevalence and cost. But they also need to know how to take action - both immediately and over the long term.

Most of what we know about autism and how to respond to it is based on research in high-income countries. However, most people with autism live in low and middle-income countries. 

Will our “evidence-based” services meet the needs of societies and communities with different health, education and social welfare systems, as well as different cultural beliefs? Will they even be feasible in less-affluent regions? We need new research to find out, and that takes funding.

On Day 3 of our consultations, we agreed that, as a global community, we will use the recently enacted autism resolutions of the United Nationals General Assembly and the World Health Assembly Executive Board to increase the commitment and accountability of governments worldwide. (Follow the links for more information on each resolution.)

Through a global network of stakeholders, we will generate evidence and best practice guidelines that help governments improve access to autism services in their countries and communities. 

To do this, we need to increase global support – including financial resources – for research that provides solutions and for programs that deliver these solutions. And these solutions must address more than earlier detection and intervention for autism. Nations also need to develop lifelong support programs that include opportunities for employment and community inclusion based on fundamental human rights. Most importantly, we agreed, parents and individuals with autism must be partners in every step of the process.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.