International Conference On Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders

19-21 April 2017, Thimphu, Bhutan

His Excellency Tshering Tobgay, Honorable Prime Minister of Bhutan; Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina, Honorable Prime Minister of Bangladesh; Her Royal Highness Jetsum Pema, Queen of Bhutan; Excellencies, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my privilege to be with you today.

At the outset I would like to thank the Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan, and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Bangladesh, for hosting this conference in collaboration with WHO SEARO. Your leadership is appreciated.

I also appreciate the support and effort of Shuchona Foundation, whose work in this area – particularly in low- and middle-income settings – is commendable.

Bhutan’s collaboration and partnership has been similarly valuable.

Indeed, your collective drive to address Autism Spectrum Disorders and other Neurodevelopmental Disorders is laudable.

As we know, Autism Spectrum Disorder – or ASD – is an often overlooked and misunderstood public health issue, despite affecting an estimated 1 in 160 people globally.

Part of the reason is stigma. Part is fear. Part is even the diverse symptoms of the disorder itself.

But most dominant is a lack of awareness of what ASD is and how it can be managed. This applies as much to health systems and health care workers as it does to the general public.

Given ASD’s impact on individuals, families and communities, positive change is needed, both socially and systemically.

ASD and other Neurodevelopmental Disorders – or to use another acronym, NDDs – are responsible for impairment of personal, social, academic or occupational functioning. These brain function deficits can affect a person’s emotions and memory as well as their ability to learn, socialize and maintain self-control. Though the range of deficits is wide, their effect on a person’s wellbeing is often similar: life-long disability marked by unemployment and social isolation.

The situation is compounded in low- and middle-income countries. Poor infrastructure, shortage of trained professionals, lack of reliable data and evidence-based interventions limit the support persons suffering the disorder can access. For an autistic child this can set-up a lifetime of unnecessary suffering. And for an autistic adult it can exacerbate the disorder’s social and economic effects.

As the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities outlines, states not only have an obligation to safeguard citizens from discrimination on the grounds of disability; they also have a positive obligation to empower persons with disabilities to fully participate in civil, political, economic, social and cultural life.

I am pleased to note, Excellencies, your commitment to fulfilling these obligations. Indeed, for a number of years now you have been working to increase awareness on ASD and NDDs, and to improve the support services available.

In 2011 the Government of Bangladesh hosted the International Conference on ASD and Developmental Disabilities. The Dhaka Declaration on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities was issued, and a Strategic and Convergent Action Plan on Autism and NDDs was developed.

At WHO South-East Asia’s 2012 Regional Committee in Jogyakarta, Indonesia, you built on this progress. A resolution was passed promising comprehensive and coordinated efforts for the management of ADDs and developmental disabilities in the Region. You also requested my support for the South-East Asia Autism Network, which I was pleased to provide.

Finally, at the 2014 Regional Committee in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a side event was held to strengthen partnerships to address autism – a worthy and valuable pursuit. The outcome was the launch of the Global Initiative on Autism which aims to create a more inclusive and integrated global community through enhanced ASD and NDD services.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

WHO is proud to support your efforts.

Apart from facilitating these initiatives, we have carried out workshops, developed screening tools and drafted training manuals. And thanks to your input and engagement at last year’s consultation in New Delhi we developed the WHO South-East Asia Regional Strategy on ASD.

I am immensely proud to present it today.

Though we will discuss many aspects of ASD and NDDs in coming days, I want to focus on four strategies that are central to achieving our goals, and which will form the overarching themes of much that will be covered.

The first strategy is scaling up advocacy, leadership and governance on ASD and NDD issues. Barriers affecting persons with ASD must be identified and removed, and legal frameworks supporting the rights of persons with ASD, their families and caregivers must be developed. As part of this, involvement of persons affected by ASD and NDDs is vitally important, as is a commitment to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as previous regional resolutions and declarations.

The second strategy involves pursuing comprehensive, integrated and responsive mental health services in community-based settings. Simple community-based mental health services provide an opportunity to screen for ASD and NDDs, and can also help link patients with emotional and social support services. Though resource limitations inhibit the possibility of specialized services, existing systems can ensure a basic level of service provision while creating referral pathways to purpose-built facilities.

The third strategy requires us to focus on ways to minimize disabilities associated with ASD and NDDs, and to promote mental, social and physical health and wellbeing among persons suffering them. This means detecting and recognizing developmental delays and comorbidities early and making appropriate interventions. It also means enhancing understanding of the secondary health risks persons with ASD face. By extension, the mental health of parents and siblings of persons with ASD and NDDs must also be attended to.

And the fourth strategy emphasizes the importance of sound research and surveillance in delivering effective services. Pre- and post-service research can inform policy design, help policymakers make adjustments where necessary, and increase transparency and public awareness. In order to make this happen, current health information and surveillance systems must be improved and expanded, and performance indicators developed.

Excellencies,

At this conference you have the opportunity to make these strategies your own, and tailor them to your needs. This opportunity must be grasped.

We have among us some of the world’s finest researchers and academics studying ASD and NDDs. And we also have some of the world’s most experienced public health practitioners and policymakers.

As demonstrated by the presence of his Excellency Tshering Tobgay, Honorable Prime Minister of Bhutan, and her Excellency Sheikh Hasina, Honorable Prime Minister of Bangladesh, we have support from the highest levels in the Region. I thank you Excellencies for your keen engagement.

I also thank her Royal Highness Queen Jetsun Pema for her presence and enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, we will only truly succeed if our expertise and influence is matched by a generosity of spirit and a commitment to working with and for the people that matter: individuals, families and communities living with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

I thank you for your dedication in this regard. As I mentioned at the outset, your enthusiasm is palpable.

Before I close I take this opportunity to give my sincere thanks to WHO’s Regional Champion for Autism, Ms Saima Wazed Hossain. We are excited to have you on board. For many years your voice has been one of power and conviction, both in the Region and across the world.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I wish you a productive and successful conference. I look forward to hearing about your progress, and to ensuring persons suffering ASD and NDDs are no longer overlooked or misunderstood, but are provided the services they require to live happy, healthy and prosperous lives.

Thank you very much.

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