Autism Speaks, the world's largest autism science and advocacy organization, in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh, the Centre for Neurodevelopment & Autism in Children, and the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University hosted the first regional conference titled "Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South East Asia." The World Health Organization also participated and provided technical support. The two-day Conference brought together regional politicians, international organizations, and academics to discuss the current state of autism research and advocacy within the region as well as opportunities for future collaboration. The Conference served to launch the South Asia Autism Network; a multi-national network of governments, organizations, and private citizens committed to combating autism throughout South Asia.
The conference began on July 25, with opening statements by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Sheikh Hasina urged all to join the regional initiatives in facing autism, "I request you all to join me in friendship in taking up this tremendous challenge facing us today. Let us begin the process of working in cooperation and collaboration with one another, so that as a region we can develop scientifically sound practices, which are socially applicable and economically feasible." H.E. Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress; H.E. Shiranthi Rajapaksa, First Lady of Sri Lanka; Hon. Lyonpo Zangley Dukpa, Minister of Health for Bhutan; Hon. Dr. Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, Minister of Health for Indonesia; among others spoke at the commencement of the conference.
Suzanne and Bob Wright, co-founders of Autism Speaks addressed the conference participants through a video message, "We are committed to supporting the global autism community and know that rapid and sustainable progress is possible when key stakeholders work collaboratively to reach common goals."
While the conference dealt with many aspects of autism awareness within the region, a key component of the conference was the announcement and launch of the South Asia Autism Network. The purpose of the network is to identify common challenges each country faces when dealing with autism and to form partnerships to develop solutions to meet the needs of South Asian families and individuals. By bringing together health and education ministries, local networks, and private citizens throughout South Asia, the South Asia Autism Network will allow countries to provide better recognition and treatment for autistic individuals.
Shekhar Saxena, M.D., Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization, welcomed the network's development stating, "Increased attention by policy-makers and health professionals towards developmental disabilities in low and middle income families is a very encouraging sign; the WHO will provide all possible technical assistance and support to achieve the objectives of the Network."
Also discussed during the conference was the Global Autism Public Health (GAPH) initiative, the innovative, international initiative created by Autism Speaks which employs an integrated approach to focus on three goals:
- Increasing public and professional awareness of autism spectrum disorders (ASD);
- Increasing research expertise and international collaboration through training of autism researchers, with a focus on epidemiology, screening and early diagnosis, and treatment; and
- Enhancing service delivery by providing training and expertise to service providers in early diagnosis and intervention.
At the conclusion of the conference, Autism Speaks convened the first Advisory Board meeting of GAPH Bangladesh. Autism Speaks Vice President of Scientific Affairs Andy Shih, Ph.D. stated, "GAPH Bangladesh made significant inroads towards crafting a strategic plan to implement a national needs assessment and to pilot awareness efforts; important first steps towards defining the scope of autism in Bangladesh and needs of the community."