Charting a Path to Inclusion: A Call to Action from the WHO-UNICEF Global Report on Developmental Disabilities

September 19, 2023
Vincent F and Keith Wargo

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings this week in New York City, Autism Speaks and Qatar Foundation co-hosted the launch of the WHO-UNICEF Global Report on Children with Developmental Disabilities. The report is a call for action to intentionally include children and young people with developmental disabilities in renewed global and country level efforts to enable transformations towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Autism Speaks CEO Keith Wargo kicked off the event with the speech below:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests,

For those of you whom I have the pleasure of meeting for the first time, I’m Keith Wargo and I serve as the CEO of Autism Speaks. I’m also a father to a wonderful adult son AJ who has autism.

When AJ was about 14 years old, he submitted a poster for an art contest. The theme of the contest was equality and AJ’s poster showed a police officer and a young black man holding hands. The caption he wrote – in very large, awkward letters because AJ’s fine motor skills are poor, read “Can’t we just get along”.

We were surprised when AJ’s poster was selected as a winner, because he is not especially gifted as an artist. But what was REALLY surprising was that the organization that held the contest did not know that AJ was autistic, or that he attended a special needs school. They had selected it for its message and the unique feel of the art. My wife Anne and I were very proud when AJ received an award, at Princeton University no less, both because of his achievement but also because he was the only winner who had a developmental disability.

I share this story to illustrate that when we embrace the unique perspectives of those with developmental disabilities, we enrich the tapestry of our collective human experience. The report we're launching today, to which Autism Speaks contributed, echoes this very sentiment.

Dr Al Kuwari and Keith Wargo talking

Over the years, we've seen incredible strides in public awareness about autism – thanks to partnerships between advocates, research communities and policymakers. Qatar's leadership on the global stage has been pivotal, from establishing World Autism Awareness Day to efforts on managing autism spectrum disorder endorsed by the World Health Assembly.

In launching this flagship global report, we hope to keep that momentum going.

One of the main themes of this report is that inclusion is imperative to achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We believe that those with developmental disabilities, including autism, must be involved in policymaking and program development. They offer unique and invaluable perspectives and including them isn't just the right thing to do—it's the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.

The report also stresses the vital role that participation plays in the lives of children with developmental disabilities. At Autism Speaks, we've seen firsthand how engaging in a variety of meaningful activities, and empowering caregivers with actionable knowledge, like the WHO Caregivers Skills Training program, can drastically improve a child's development. These experiences help build essential life skills, nurture creativity, build self-esteem and foster a sense of identity.

Another key point from the report that dovetails with our mission at Autism Speaks is the 'twin-track approach' to caregiving. This two-pronged strategy focuses on both inclusion in mainstream services as well as specialized, individualized care. This holistic approach guides the programs we design, the research we conduct, and the grants we fund.

Vincent and Bin F reading materials

Lastly, the report reminds us that many individuals with developmental disabilities have spent a lifetime trying to fit into a world not built for them. That's why trauma-informed care, noted in the report, is crucial. It's also why Autism Speaks is committed to promoting an understanding of past traumas, and incorporating them into more effective and compassionate care strategies.

In summary, the findings of this report serve as both a call to action and a blueprint for change. It's heartening to hear Qatar's commitment to supporting inclusion in all its forms, and I look forward to exploring ways to collaborate even further to help more countries meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

Just as my son AJ’s poster and his unique approach to it stood out to those judges 10 years ago, we know that the inclusion and active participation of all those with developmental disabilities enrich our communities, sharpen our policies, and uplift our lives.

Armed with the data underpinning this report, the commitment of everyone in the room here today, and the dedicated work of Autism Speaks, UNICEF, WHO and the State of Qatar, we can build a more inclusive world where everyone has the opportunity to shine.
Thank you.