Remarks by Ambassador James F. Entwistle – World Autism Awareness Day (June 17, 2015)

Abuja | June 17, 2015

(As prepared for delivery)

I am pleased and honored to be here today to offer my encouragement and the support of the U.S. government to all of you on the occasion of World Autism Awareness Day.

One of the strongest partnerships between the governments of Nigeria and the United States centers on health care.  Together we are fighting malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and many childhood diseases.  Last year, we were proud to support Nigeria as it defeated Ebola.  But there are many other health challenges that we can work together to address.  Among them is the importance of building public awareness, finding policy solutions, and expanding medical and social treatment for autism.

Autism is a global problem that affects one of every 68 children in the United States.  Worldwide, autism affects all classes and races, in cities and in rural areas.  In Nigeria, an estimated 200,000 to 380,000 people are affected by autism.  Estimates are that autism is the third most common childhood disorder in Nigeria and is the fastest growing developmental disability.

We have made a great deal of progress in recent decades in the United States in recognizing and treating early-stage symptoms of autism.  Health care workers and counselors have learned to design special programs to identify more precisely the characteristics of particular types of autism.  We are becoming more and more attuned to the needs of children and adults with autism, and we are doing a better job as a community supporting their caregivers.

Unfortunately, many parents of children with autism continue to struggle to get their children properly diagnosed, and families struggle with the social stigma and burden of identifying treatment and caring for their loved ones.  These obstacles increase the chances that the unique capabilities of those with autism will be lost to society.

All persons—including those with autism—deserve to be treated with dignity and understanding.  As President Obama said in April in a proclamation recognizing World Autism Awareness Day, our nation is better because of the unique talents and perspectives of all our people.  For these reasons, President Obama signed into legislation provisions to train and educate healthcare professionals specializing in autism care.

I applaud the courageous efforts of parents and healthcare practitioners such as Dr. Yinka Akindayomi, whose son was born autistic.  Through her efforts, and with support from the United States African Development Foundation (USADF), she established the Children’s Developmental Centre (CDC) in Lagos, where hundreds of children and young adults have received diagnostic assessments, treatment, vocational training, and other social services. The Centre’s catering business employs autistic young adults, helps them set up savings accounts for their earnings, and is expanding such business services into new areas.

Today’s event is an important step toward building social awareness as you—health care and policy professionals, parents, NGO activists, and the media—commit to improving national understanding of autism.  As you develop a national action plan, your work will provide ongoing benefits to current and future Nigerians and their families.

We welcome you to the U.S. Embassy and thank you for including us in this program.  We wish you success in this important work and look forward to your continued progress.