With the adoption of the Thimphu Declaration on autism and neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs), the three-day international conference on autism and NDDs ended in Thimphu, yesterday.

Health minister Tandin Wangchuk said that another milestone has been achieved in advancing the global agenda of autism with the adoption of the declaration.

The declaration, a combination of inputs from various stakeholders will welcome the WHO South-East Asia (SEA) regional strategy on autism spectrum disorders (ASB).

The regional strategy is based on the four strategic areas defined in the WHO Mental Health Action Plan 2013 – 2020. It has 31 objectives, based on the declarations and resolutions on autism and NDDs as well as the four overarching strategic areas of the action plan. The objectives are to provide member states with clear working targets to holistically address the lifespan needs of persons with ASDs.

The second declaration is to call upon governments to integrate the needs of those with autism and other NDDs in health, education, social services and socioeconomic development policy, planning and implementation, as well as other national efforts in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The declaration also calls upon governments at all levels to work together with civil society including academia, professionals, non-governmental organisations, private sectors and the media to address autism and NDDs, and effectively implement the Thimphu Declaration.

The stakeholders will collectively enhance whole-of-society and whole-of-government efforts to strengthen national capacity, to provide services and take measures to remove associated stigma and promote social inclusiveness for individuals and families with ASD and NDDs.

The declaration reaffirms the South-East Asian countries’ commitment to strengthen information systems and research and promote knowledge and experience sharing, within and across countries, particularly on best practices with a focus on the lifespan needs of those with autism and NDDs.

It also invites United Nations agencies, development partners and international organisations to facilitate cooperation, collaboration and support countries in the implementation of the declaration, in accordance with the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

A committee of members representing all the stakeholders finalised the declaration.

The president with Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan (KGUMSB), Dr KP Tshering said that the declaration is the fruit of the conference.

“This is what we have to cherish and everyone should pledge the conviction and commitment to transmit the declaration into an action plan and policies of the various governments to make lives of people with autism and NDDs more meaningful in  society,” he said.

Lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk said he is confident that the declaration will entice and encourage stakeholders including government agencies and UN organisations to fervently fight for the rights of individuals and families living with disabilities.

The health ministry commits to take forward the declaration to ensure better services and support system for autism and NDDs, he said. “For this, I seek support from WHO and partners,” Lyonpo added.

“All in all, whatever efforts we make, including this conference, should ultimately result into better life and happiness for persons with disabilities and their loved ones,” Lyonpo said.

Chairperson with the national advisory committee for autism and NDDs, Bangladesh and WHO champion for autism in SEA, Saima Hossain, said she hopes that by coming together and sharing thoughts, the participants have changed lots of minds. “Because that is what we really need for our community, for all of us who hold the issue of disability and the needs of the vulnerable people close to our hearts,” she said. “We need to come together, work together and change people’s minds.”

She said that it’s easier to think of the details like the services and programmes but it’s much harder to change how people think. “But that is the challenge, if there is anything that you have taken away from this conference, that is what I would like you to do and invite you all to become a champion.”

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

Dechen Tshomo