By Lynda Borromeo, founder and president of the Autism Hearts Foundation, in San Francisco, and Autism Hearts Philippines. These Filipino-American foundations are active members of Autism Speaks Global Autism Advocacy Leadership Network.
In 2008, while visiting my parents in the Philippines, I met with families affected by autism in the town where I was born. Most were alone, lost and beleaguered by challenges. At that time, autism brought great stigma in the Philippines. Many of these families found themselves shunned because their child was different.
We met in a small restaurant near my parents’ home, thanks to arrangements made by an old friend of mine. We shared stories and challenges. We also shed tears of joy over the opportunity to learn from each other's experiences. But this was not enough. These families needed a support system that they could rely on in a sustainable way.
Back home in the United States, I had fought for and obtained the services that I knew my grandson needed and deserved. The children of these families from my hometown deserved the same. They needed a sustainable support system that they could rely on. Like my grandson, their children needed services.
Sadly, in the Philippines, neither local nor central governments provided the kind of assistance needed to produce long-lasting benefits in the lives of these children. All these families had were the experiences they shared. They learned from each other, without professional guidance.
I wanted to help. But at the time, I couldn’t see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.”
In a developing country riddled with so many social problems and a lack of social services in general, the task was daunting.
In the years since, our family and friends have joined forced to advocate for our Filipino "Kababayans" (countrymen) affected by autism. We established the Autism Hearts Foundation, both in the United States and in the Philippines. Along the way, Autism Speaks became our partner and guide toward that "light at the end of the tunnel." Together, we are successfully engaging our Philippine government.
In early November, we held our first two-day national workshop. Attendees included directors and administrators from the 33 regional hospitals and medical facilities affiliated with the Philippines’ Department of Health.
Autism Speaks participated as the technical advisor to the national strategic planning process, as part of its Global Autism Public Health Initiative (GAPH). Michael Rosanoff (right) attended to discuss GAPH and its global activities as a model for improving autism awareness and access to services in the Philippines.
We had another autism champion at this national strategy workshop: Paulyn Ubial, the assistant secretary to the Philippine Department of Health. Dr. Ubial (below) has made the national strategy and an autism prevalence study a top priority.
Through the establishment of a “National Strategy Structure in the Management of Autism,” the Philippine government has now made a commitment to provide a formal support system for an estimated 1 million people with autism. They and their families will now have a government support system that they can depend on.
The parents in my hometown – and across the Philippines – now have reason to hope for brighter futures with their children becoming productive members of society.
It was awesome to witness the workshop participants develop this national strategy. They shared their vision, mission, goals, objectives and strategies on how the autism supports and services will be implemented through “Autism Units” within each of the country’s 33 regional hospitals and medical centers.
I speak on behalf of our Filipino families, from the bottom of our hearts: “Thank you, Autism Speaks for listening. Thank you for hearing our voices and helping us.”
We remember when there was almost nothing. Now the government is listening. We look forward with great anticipation to the implementation of the Philippines National Strategy in Managing Autism. Mabuhay!