Strengthen inclusion, participation of people with autism to ‘achieve their full potential’ says UN chief

UNICEF UNICEF helps develop tools and introduces training programmes for health practitioners to detect autism in their communities.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.

On World Autism Awareness Day, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres underscored in his message on Tuesday, the importance of technology which helps people living with autism “achieve their full potential”.

“Celebrate the diversity of our global community and strengthen our commitment to the full inclusion and participation of people with autism”, he said, as “a vital part of our efforts to uphold the core promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: to leave no one behind”.

In recent years, societies across the world have become increasingly aware of autism, the neurological condition that impacts communication and social behavior. Last year, Mr. Guterres launched a Strategy on New Technologies to help align these tools with UN values, international law and human rights conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This year’s observance underscores the importance of “affordable assistive technologies” to help people with autism live independently and “exercise their basic human rights”, he said.

However, the UN chief pointed out that there are still “major barriers to accessing such technologies”, including high costs, unavailability and a lack of awareness of their potential.

“On World Autism Awareness Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to these values – which include equality, equity and inclusion – and to promoting the full participation of all people with autism, by ensuring that they have the necessary tools to exercise their rights and fundamental freedoms,” he said.

Freedom is ‘Room to breathe’

UN Headquarters in New York observed the Day with a special event that focused on leveraging technology to remove barriers for people with autism so they can fully participate in society; and to promote equality, equity and inclusion.

“These technologies are much more than tools that are useful or nice to have”, said Alison Smale, the UN Global Communications chief who chaired the commemoration: “Reliable access to affordable assistive technologies is a fundamental human rights issue”.

Discussions with self-advocates and autism experts covered topics from leveling the playing field through the internet and digital communities, to political participation and advocacy that gives voice to people with autism.

“Freedom is the room to breathe and grow”, said keynote speaker David Saverese using his own assistive technology. The Emmy award-nominated documentary filmmaker is himself a person living with autism.

“People spend too much time listening to fear” said the top graduate of Oberlin College. “Hope not fear, is what drives self-efficacy…hope lives on messy, imperfect”.

Unable to verbalize, he uses assistive technology to underscore how it helps people living with autism to “feel safer in our own skin”.
“It’s not easy to be assisted by others”, he said, but when our work in smart technology “assists others to read and write…or follow their dreams”, it can help provide “better lives for our people”.

‘Safe’ to live independently

During a panel discussion, Julia Ejiogu, Clinical Director of The Zeebah Foundation in Abuja, Nigeria, said that although most parents in Africa are not aware of the capabilities that technology can provide for their children, “we can capitalize on this nugget” of a “vibrant global network” to educate and provide more awareness “to close the gap”.

Through a communication device, self-advocate Neal Katz teaches media to UCLA students with autism, saying: “I feel most human when I am in control”.

“Thanks to assisted technology, I am safe from living a life where other people tell me what to do and where to go”, he explained, adding that when he makes up his mind about what he wants, “I take out my iPhone and select the corresponding icon on my app and am on my way”.

For his part, through assistive technology, Noor Pervez, Community Engagement Coordinator of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, spoke about how to empower autistic people.

“Every country should prioritize getting non-speaking individuals to participate in conversations that involve us”, he maintained, adding that people with autism must “boost our voices”.         

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