On September 26, 2008, more than 150 First Ladies and dignitaries, including Mrs. Ban Soon-taek, wife to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Mrs. Sarah Brown, wife of the British Prime Minister met in New York to discuss the global epidemic of autism.
Organized and hosted by Mrs. Suzanne Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, the largest non-profit autism research organization in the world, the international coalition representing 55
View highlights from United Nations World Focus on Autism Forum
YouTube video ~ 4 minutes
countries was a striking endorsement of the UN efforts to raise autism awareness. Those attending included first ladies from Albania, Bahamas, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Cyprus, Mali, Panama, and Poland as well as spouses of ambassadors. This distinguished group heard from a world-class panel of experts and discussed an international pathway to raising global awareness and promoting research into this non-discriminative disorder.
In her opening remarks, event chair Mrs. Ban Soon-taek welcomed the international group on behalf of her husband UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and stated that, “it is still sadly a reality that in some parts of the world, those affected by autism-related disorders are set aside, placed in institutions or dismissed as untreatable lost causes.” Mrs. Ban continued to say that “it is crucial that professionals and society at large become more involved, compassionate and accepting of this complex condition.” Co-chair Mrs. Dorrit Moussaieff, First Lady of Iceland shared her personal reflections on Autism Speaks Co-Founders Bob and Suzanne Wright. “The energy and commitment of Bob and Suzanne to raising awareness of and funding research into autism has been an inspiration to me as to all who come in to contact with them.”
Calling for action, event host Suzanne Wright asked the international delegation convened, “not just as the co-founder of Autism Speaks, but as a grandmother of a little boy who has slipped into the silent world of autism to please lend your voices and stand united with us in our worldwide campaign. By recognizing World Autism Awareness Day every April 2nd until a cure is found, you will help to shine a global spotlight on autism.” Bob Wright, shared some of the staggering statistics with the room, “it is estimated that approximately 1% of the global population has autism – 67 million worldwide” Wright said in his remarks.
Global Autism Public Health Initiative (GAPH)
During the event, Autism Speaks unveiled its Global Autism Public Health Initiative (GAPH), designed in response to the call to action put forth by the speakers at the event and presented in a panel discussion moderated by CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Participating in the panel were: Autism Speaks' Dr. Geraldine Dawson, Chief Science Officer; Dr. Andy Shih, Vice President of Scientific Affairs; and Ms. Alison Tepper Singer, Executive Vice President; as well as Mr. Hassan Ali Bin Ali, Chairman of the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs and Dr. Hatem El Shanti, Director of the Shafallah Genetics Medical Center.
GAPH is an ambitious international advocacy effort aimed at increasing public and professional awareness of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) worldwide. This Initiative also strives to enhance research expertise and international collaboration through training of autism researchers – with a focus on epidemiology, screening and early diagnosis, and treatment – and to improve service delivery in all nations by providing training to providers in early diagnosis and intervention.
As part of the awareness component of GAPH, Autism Speaks will help others emulate its highly successful U.S. awareness campaign, which has dramatically increased public and professional recognition and understanding of ASD and supported the passing of significant federal and state legislation aimed at enhancing research and services.
In the area of training and scientific collaboration, GAPH is focused on building research capacity worldwide by encouraging the adaptation of standardized screening and diagnostic instruments for cultural relevance and sensitivity with the goal of ensuring accurate diagnosis and early detection of ASD. Additionally, Autism Speaks' International Autism Epidemiology Network (IAEN) provides a platform for collaborative research through the exchange of epidemiologic ideas and practices between investigators and across countries.
The services training and delivery component of GAPH is based on the understanding that effective treatments involve close collaboration between professionals and families, and require sensitivity to cultural perspectives and values. GAPH will offer information and training regarding empirically supported “best practices” that can be tailored to the specific needs, cultural preferences, and values of a given territory.
“GAPH is an effort to form global partnerships that will improve our scientific understanding of autism and help the world better understand the scope of this unique health crisis,” said Dr. Dawson. “Perhaps most importantly, it will help build the infrastructures needed to provide individuals who have autism with the services and support they need and deserve. We will find the answers we seek about autism only through international cooperation and collaboration, partnerships forged in laboratories, governmental chambers and homes across the world.”
Autism Speaks is seeking partners worldwide who will work with the organization to foster collaborations among governments, communities, and scientists, as well as help to support self-sustaining public health infrastructures to enhance awareness and capacity for autism services and research in their respective countries. Differences in resources, infrastructure, culture, and priorities will require a customized plan of action for each territory.