The President of the United Nations General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic, Monday called for more to be done to close an "awareness gap" in terms of developing countries' knowledge of autism and how to treat the illness.
"Whilst it is clear that knowledge is growing in certain parts of the world, the same cannot be said for many developing countries. I strongly believe that we need to act on this awareness gap," Jeremic said at a High-level Special Event on Autism and Developmental Disabilities.
Held at UN Headquarters in New York, and sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations, the event was held in support of the submission of a new General Assembly resolution on Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Autism is characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social interactions and in restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour. The Assembly President, in his remarks, noted that doctors now believe that one in every 2000 children suffer from the illness - much higher than previously thought - with perhaps up to 70 million sufferers around the world.
In his comments, the Assembly President voiced his support for Bangladesh's draft resolution on a coordinated global response to autism, and noted the importance of placing focus not only on awareness-raising, but also on building the capacity of healthcare providers to offer appropriate services.
"Unfortunately, medical expertise is lacking in many low- and middle-income Member States, hindering efforts to properly address the issue," Jeremic said.
"Children with developmental disorders and their families often face major challenges associated with isolation and discrimination, as well as a lack of access to adequate health care and education facilities," he added. "In many corners of the world, autism is as much a development as it is a health issue. Supporting people with that condition will require a coordinated, multi-faceted approach at the global level."
Starting in April 2008, the international community has been drawing attention to the illness, with the holding of the first-ever World Autism Awareness Day, following the adoption of General Assembly resolution on the matter. Earlier this year, the UN Postal Administration issued six commemorative postal stamps dedicated to autism awareness, featuring images created by artists who have been diagnosed with the disorder.
President Jeremic said that he strongly believes that Bangladesh's draft resolution will advance the interests and well-being of millions of autistic individuals and their families.
"It is critical, in my view, to actively involve the UN system in this endeavour, as well as engage with private sector, philanthropic, and civil society organizations. A funding mechanism will also need to be developed, as without adequate material support the objectives set forth in the draft resolution will be unattainable," he said.
Taking note of the world body's long-running promotion of the rights and well-being of the disabled, including children with developmental disorders, Jeremic flagged an Assembly high-level meeting, entitled 'The way forward: a disability-inclusive development agenda towards 2015 and beyond,' taking place at the beginning of the Assembly's 68th session, which starts late next year.
"In the near future, I will appoint facilitators for this event," he said. "It is my hope that the General Assembly, through the draft resolution as well as the subsequent high-level meeting, will become a true advocate for the rights of those suffering from autism."
He added, "In this way we shall further the aims of the UN Charter by reaffirming 'faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.'"
In a message delivered on his behalf to the gathering, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that there is much work ahead to ensure that the needs of persons with autism are addressed in health, education and other systems.
"What is understood in principle is not always carried out in practice," Ban said. "The talents and needs of children, adolescents and adults with autism and their families must be recognized by providing them with early intervention therapies and adequate education to facilitate their participation in our communities and enhance their employment opportunities."
He added, "Let us work together to give due consideration to mental health, including autism and other developmental disorders, as we prepare for the High-level Meeting on Disability and Development in 2013, and as we engage in discussions related to the post-2015 development agenda."