The Vatican’s recent conference, “The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope,” was aimed at reducing stigma associated with autism. Pope Francis held a mass for families affected by autism to close the conference. Watch a video of the mass here.
Autism Speaks co-Founders Bob and Suzanne Wright spoke at the conference on volunteerism and received a standing ovation. Recently, Mr. and Mrs. Wright spoke with Zenit.com. Read an excerpt from that interview below.
ZENIT: Let’s talk about your experience at the Vatican this week at this conference dedicated to autism. How has your experience been?
Suzanne: Well, we had been here when Cardinal Egan was made a Cardinal [Cardinal Edward Egan of New York]. This and then have been a very spiritual time. But this embracing our autism community globally from the Vatican is really amazing, and it really is what this Pope is all about ... The families on the margin, the people on the margin, and the children with autism, who are really on the margins.
And the idea that he has embraced this is truly extraordinary because we’ve been at this for ten years and I’ve always said, and I am Catholic, and I’ve been to Cardinal Dolan’s office, and Cardinal Egan’s office, and I’ve been to all of them over the past 5 or 6 years, asking them to help me to get the Catholic Church involved because the Church is such an extraordinary leader in so many ways. And look what they did for AIDs around the world, just embracing the people who needed their help. And [Pope Francis is] really a leader, a spiritual leader, who people need to hear! To hear the Pope speak on autism is wonderful. His message would reverberate around the world. It’s extraordinary.
But I really think, too, that it needs to go to all faiths. This is the leader of our Church. That’s the one thing we all have in common and that’s our religion. … Autism doesn’t care if you’re Muslim, Protestant, or Catholic. So I think this is a chance for the world’s faiths to step in line with our Church and the Pope, and see what we can do as far as healing around the world.
Bob: Well, from a very practical standpoint, the Catholic Church manages an enormous number of healthcare organizations, hospitals, homes, retirement areas, clinics, all over the world. So to have them focusing on autism, especially given all the Catholic healthcare workers, is a huge number of people. That’s very positive.
Any words that the Pope puts forth on this subject will really get some resonance, not only in the healthcare community, but in the public, especially in places like Latin America which is heavily Catholic. The stigma can be reduced in 20 seconds, 40 seconds. [Pope Francis] can reduce that stigma, just by saying: ‘You need to help these families. No blame here. You have to help and pull together. I pray for all of you.’
Also since there’s thousands and thousands of people that are doctors, nurses or management in healthcare, that are in the Catholic system, this channels back to them, too, and is very beneficial.
ZENIT: Would you say you are getting something out of this conference itself?
Bob: It’s the fact that they’re signaling to these healthcare organizations—there’s probably several million people—that this is important and you better stay abreast. You better pay attention … There’ll be write-ups from Archbishop [Zygmunt] Zimowski, President of Pontifical Council for Healthcare Workers, that will go out to all these thousands and thousands of locations, so that will be the prize. More so than the presentations, it’s more about how they summarize it and send it out to all of these healthcare workers…. This will help a lot.
ZENIT: How can the Catholic Church help with combating autism? Can it help?
Bob: Because the Catholic Church is everywhere. It will help. No question. And the workers will get the message, too, that they’re being supported.
Suzanne: People are starting to realize this is truly a problem that, thank God, the Vatican is truly addressing. Now we have a door opened here. I am sure they’ve whispered the word in many countries—autism. This is going to really provide a platform to have open discussion and dialogue about autism.