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Autism Speaks global outreach addresses superstition and stigma

Culturally appropriate education efforts can save lives in world regions where autism can bring label of witchcraft or demonic possession



Many of our readers have seen the heartbreaking Internet video above. It captures the rescue of a starving 2-year-old Nigerian boy who had been labeled a witch and shunned by his family and village.

“While I don’t know the specific story behind this young boy, we know that in some African regions, many children who have autism are believed to be witches or possessed by demons,” says Autism Speaks Senior Vice President for Scientific Affairs Andy Shih. Dr. Shih heads the Autism Speaks’ Global Autism Public Health program (GAPH).

Through GAPH, Autism Speaks supports research and training to help local public health workers educate traditional African communities about autism and how to help children and adults who have the condition.

Rather than pitting “science against religion,” research suggests the more-effective approach is to dispel superstitions by sharing knowledge in culturally respectful ways, Dr. Shih says. “Many of us believe – based on good evidence from other areas of public health – that we have real opportunities in partnering with shamans and traditional healers to deliver services and support to our families,” he explains.

In 2014, Dr. Shih traveled to Ghana for a workshop on autism spectrum disorder in Africa, sponsored by the International Child Neurology Association. This year, the workshop attendees published their findings and recommendations in the Journal of Child Neurology.

Autism Speaks’ GAPH team continues to support and guide the development of culturally sensitive screening and intervention programs for regions in Africa and other resource-poor areas of the world. These initiatives include the Autism Speaks/World Health Organization (WHO) Parent Skills Training program. It teaches parents and other caregivers to use behavioral strategies that help children with autism better communicate, learn and function in daily life.

The Autism Speaks Global Action Committee, founded in 2015, taps the dedication of leaders in health, business and philanthropy to use their diverse resources and skills to increase the international response to autism.

Autism Speaks’ Advocacy Leadership Network is a global collaborative of advocacy organizations and government health ministries who meet annually to advance in global research and the implementation of United Nations and WHO resolutions on autism services and human rights.

With partnerships in more than 70 nations, Autism Speaks has an important role to play to raise awareness and accelerate progress in developing and delivering effective and culturally appropriate interventions and supports to help those with autism live their lives to the fullest, Dr. Shih says.

For more on Autism Speaks’ international outreach efforts, also see:

* Delivering autism services through Pakistan’s Family Networks for Kids

* Identifying autism in disadvantaged regions: Challenges & opportunity

* World Autism Awareness Day at the UN: Science, collaboration & answers

Autism Speaks’ Global Autism Public Health initiative is dedicated to expanding access to high-quality autism services, with a special focus on underserved communities at home and abroad.

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.