The following is the English translation of the prepared remarks by First Lady Dragica Nikolić of Serbia at the 6th Annual World Focus on Autism held Sept. 26, 2013 in New York. Watch video of the event here.
Dear Mrs. Ban,
Dear Suzanne and Bob Wright,
Not a single word that I am going to utter today is clearer and more eloquent than the message you have just seen. The message was sent to us, on behalf of the children with autism in Serbia, by Luka Mijovic, a young poet living with autism, who wishes to share his talent with the world. His collection of poems was recently admired by the public at the book launch.
In a language of music and poetry that is so close to the heart of every individual, this boy, living with autism, sends out his message of love and equality, showing that he and all other persons with special needs wish and can live as equal to other human beings on the planet that we share in common.
Along with my appreciation for the noble idea of esteemed Mrs. Ban that has brought us here today, I have the honour to greet you on behalf of the citizens of Serbia, especially on behalf of my fellow countrymen suffering from autism and their families. They place great hope that our today’s sharing of experiences will result in better acceptance of persons with special needs in the countries and communities all over the world.
To be a person with special needs, different from the rest of the community, is often tantamount to being a second-rate citizen, someone less noticeable, not spoken of or not accepted. The underlying problem is, first and foremost, ignorance. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to inform everyone about the potential and specifics of persons with autism. Here, I am referring in particular to the system of education of the youngest population from pre-school level upwards, through the media, but also through training workshops. A direct contact, interaction, sincere and open communication will defeat prejudice, as the worst enemy of the human spirit.
Serbia is a country where humane and protective attitude towards children, the infirm and every individual in need is part of an age-long popular tradition. These are the foundations that common action by all factors of our society rests upon. Autism requires, apart from humanism, intellectual and emotional acceptance of every individual, as well as overall action. This action is undertaken by the state and just as much by non-governmental organizations, including formal and informal civic associations and initiatives.
The Constitution and the laws of the Republic of Serbia guarantee equal rights of all citizens. Persons with autism are guaranteed the right to medical treatment, inclusion in the education system and life in society, employment, numerous facilities for their families, a monthly allowance, right to a pension, subsidies for their families and many other legally binding norms that regulate and protect the rights of this category of citizens.
The law only provides the possibility, a legal basis that may never be translated into reality. For this reason, as a humanitarian and the wife of the President of Serbia and primarily as a mother and grandmother, I am filled with joy and pride at the way these laws have been applied in my country for more than two decades.
Serbia is home to a number of clinics for autism detection and counseling, which are the leading diagnostic centers in the region. Children with autism, as early as three years old, are integrated into regular preschool institutions. The process of inclusion of children and youth with autism in elementary and secondary schools, with state-designed training programs for teachers, is being successfully carried out year on year and becoming increasingly widespread.
Social entrepreneurship, the perennial European tradition that we are successfully implementing in Serbia, is on the rise today.
My country has expanded its state program by establishing a support service for families with an autistic member. This service includes: practical help at home, transport by special vehicles, supported housing, daily workshops and day care, a personal assistant. Only those having a special government license may work in this service. Local communities throughout Serbia provide free day care for people with autism as part of the social security system. Professional therapists there work with these people, individually or collectively, in adapted workshops.
Aside from the state program, non-governmental organizations and associations of citizens are also very much active in Serbia. Thus, the Autism Society of Serbia, Parent’s Association implements additional service programs offering rest, a family assistant and a weekend program. Funds for the implementation are allocated by the state through the relevant ministries. The Association has worked out the project House for Autism, whose realization is currently underway. It is significant that a number of associations from Serbia are in permanent contact and communication with similar organizations around the world. They share their ideas, experiences and programs.
Very useful manuals prepared by the Autism Speaks organization, with which we have successful cooperation, have been translated. We traditionally mark International Autism Awareness Day with a series of events, thus offering an opportunity for the general public to get to know their fellow citizens with autism, living next-door.
The Serbian institutions and non-governmental organizations, with the generous assistance and support of UN teams, actively work on the socialization of people with autism through the presentation of their artistic achievements in visual arts, music, literature, handicrafts...
The language of art is the language that everyone understands. Therefore, children with autism, supported by their therapists and the lead artists of Serbian theatre, have staged a musical that is being performed with success across Serbia. This exceptional project is aimed at inviting the best directors, actors, composers and writers to work with this population in the future. We intend to show this musical all over the world as a message of coexistence, of love blind to differences, of the art of music and dance where we are all equal, because its power will travel beyond the borders of Serbia.
I would like to convey to you the gratitude of parents, representatives of institutions and citizens of Serbia for visiting last year one of the many day care centers for children and adolescents with autism. May I also convey their and my own invitation to this distinguished audience to visit Serbia and its institutions giving care to these people.
Let our today's meeting, held under the auspices and guidance of the United Nations, be a jump-start for an even speedier and better interconnection between various institutions helping people with autism and their families worldwide. I am confident that our joint efforts will contribute to comprehensive understanding and global solutions in this field.
Let Luka Mijovic and people like him, silently bearing the burden of their life, see in the distance where he is endlessly gazing at least part of what brightens our own lives: playful mornings, tranquil evenings and a warm home to return to after having carried out a daily activity.