Five years ago, on a trip to Jerusalem, Melissa Diamond met a mother overwhelmed by the absence of resources to better assist her child with autism. Burdened by the stigma she faced in her West Bank community, the mother shared an emotional story of keeping her daughter locked in her home away from public settings: Was there some way to connect her child with the support she needed?
In the United States, more than 3.5 million people live with autism. But, unlike conflict-affected communities in the Middle East, American families and children with autism can access an array of information and assistance from the many medical or nonprofit groups available. It was this experience, of disparity in resources and cultural norms, that ultimately led Melissa to create A Global Voice for Autism (GVA) in cities across Jordan and Palestine, Syrian and Iraqi refugee camps in Turkey, and a Somali community back in Minneapolis, USA.
By focusing on family skills and community understanding, GVA now runs several successful programs in order to share skills and create environments that help autistic children to thrive. As part of its cooperative training for parents, GVA holds weekly sessions on evidence-based practices that assist children in developing the skills they need to socialize and communicate independently. Similar training sessions for teachers are also carried out to enhance classroom skills and create inclusivity of students with autism within their larger school community.
Other programs, on a more external scale, include its parent-sibling support and development groups to discuss personal interactions with family members with autism, in addition to community education initiatives and coached community outings.
In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), addressing autism goes to the heart of improving well-being, fighting inequalities, and providing equal access to educational opportunities. Last year, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and special adviser on the UN 2030 Agenda, Dr. David Nabarro similarly agreed that, “Good sustainable development is about ensuring all people can participate [in society], regardless of their ability… To ensure no one gets left behind, politicians need citizens to help make sure this happens.”
Last week, ahead of Autism Awareness Day, Melissa spoke at a UN panel on migrants with autism and other disabilities, and shared some of the difficult conditions refugee families face in the wake of trauma while caring for an autistic child. Speaking about some of the program results GVA has had with its participants, Melissa said, “[While] many families still need to access these services, for those who are in a position where they can access it, it can’t change their situation, but it really can make all the difference in giving them a sense of control and feeling like they can do something to improve the world.”
A Global Voice for Autism is one of 50 sustainable development projects featured in the Youth Solutions Report - a new report by the youth initiative of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network showcasing innovative youth-led solutions on the Sustainable Development Goals.
Dominique Maingot is a Project Officer with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network - Youth Solutions Initiative.