Although Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)  affects an estimated 1 in 160 people globally,  it is an often overlooked and misunderstood public health issue, regional director for WHO South-East Asia Region, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh said at the international conference on autism and neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs), yesterday in Thimphu.

Stigma, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh said is one of the reasons. “Part is fear and part is even the diverse symptoms of the disorder itself.” But the most dominant reason, she said, is the 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,” she said.

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

Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay graced the inaugural session at the Convention Centre in Thimphu. The Gyaltsuen also launched the Guideline for Differently Abled Friendly Construction developed by the ministry of works and human settlement.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said autism and other special needs in Bhutan are gaining attention due to the gracious patronage of Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen who is also the Royal Patron of Ability Bhutan Society.

Lyonchoen said there is sympathy for autistic children. “But that is not what they need. More than sympathy, they need our love, understanding and support at all levels at home and in schools by teachers and classmates,” he said. “On the part of governments, we need the right polices which puts people at the centre of all development policies.”

In the age of innovations, speedy technological developments and miracle drugs, Lyonchoen said that the hope is on science to find answers to treat autism and NDDs.

“In the mean time, your hard work and dedication; your love and compassion; your generosity of spirit constitute effective treatment for the wellbeing of the people and their families living with autism spectrum disorder and neurological disorders,” Lyonchoen said.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said it is encouraging to see many great clinicians, researchers and policy makers convened together for the betterment of individuals and families with ASD and NDDs. “No matter where on the spectrum they are, they all deserve to live in dignity and be loved by people around them,” she said.

Since its clinical recognition as a developmental disorder in 1944, ASD continues to be a significant health issue around the world today, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said.

“Based on studies conducted over the past 50 years, ASD can be termed as the fastest growing serious developmental disability,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said. “This warrants us to look at the core issues related to ASD comprehensively.”

Some 350 participants including senior government leaders, policy makers, experts and activists, among others from around the world attended the first day of the three-day conference. The theme of the conference is to develop effective and sustainable multi-sectorial programmes for individuals, families and communities living with ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Health minister Tandin Wangchuk said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has brought together government leaders, policy makers, experts and activists from around the globe to spread awareness on autism.

“With Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen as the Patron of ABS and with Her Majesty’s leadership, we are confident that we can integrate and mainstream disability friendly environment in Bhutan,” Lyonpo said.

Lyonpo said that Bhutan’s collaboration with WHO on disability dates back to the late 90s when the country initiated the Community Based Rehabilitation Programme.

Lyonpo also acknowledged the contribution of Ms Siama Hossian, Chairperson of Shuchona Foundation in advancing the agenda of autism.

The health ministry, Bhutan and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Bangladesh are hosting the conference with technical support from Shuchona Foundation, ABS, and the World Health Organization South-East Asia Regional Office. The conference ends tomorrow.

Dechen Tshomo