A delegation from the Malta Autism Parents’ Association and Id-Dar tal-Providenza was amongst the six hundred and fifty participants from fifty-seven different countries that took part in the Vatican’s first ever conference on autism, with the theme: “The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope.” The Conference was organised by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers between the 20th and 22nd of November. As expected the conference was concluded by an audience and speech by Pope Francis. In the spirit of inclusion and volunteerism, Pope Francis called on the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to embrace people who have autism. This was the latest example of his efforts to make the church a “home for all” by rethinking social issues and the role of science and by embracing people who are often marginalized.
It was a letter to the Pope from a Canadian couple who have an autistic child that inspired the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers to sponsor this International Conference on Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders bearing in mind the notable impact of this condition, as well as the problems that exist both in the field of research and in the identification of the pathological symptoms, which usually emerge in the early years of life including the direct involvement of the family but also of the world of schooling and, not least, of the Church community itself.
In his address Pope Francis warmly thanked all the participants for their ‘moving and meaningful testimonies’ on what it means to live with the condition, to meet their needs and break through their loneliness. The Pope spoke of creating a network of support and services on the ground that are comprehensive and accessible. He added that this is not only the responsibility of governments and institutions but also of Christian communities, parishes and friends. This, continued the Pope, would help families overcome the feelings, that can sometimes arise, of inadequacy, uselessness and frustration when faced with the daily realities of autism. Pope Francis concluded with words of encouragement for academics and researchers in the field that they may discover therapies and support tools, to help and heal and, above all, prevent the onset of these conditions as soon as possible, while always safeguarding the inalienable dignity of every person.
Numerous experts in the field of study — parents, scientists, researchers and specialists on the topic — were invited to address the conference. Amongst the outstanding speakers were Autism Speaks co-founders Bob and Suzanne Wright who spoke about their success story of support to persons with autism and their families as well as in raising awareness on this condition around the world.