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Updated: July 25, 2011 17:49 IST

Sonia Gandhi for South Asian partnership on autism

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Congress president Sonia Gandhi delivers a speech during an international Autism conference in Dhaka on Monday.
AP Congress president Sonia Gandhi delivers a speech during an international Autism conference in Dhaka on Monday.

Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi on Monday praised Bangladesh’s “path breaking innovations” in micro-finance, education, women’s empowerment and public health as she underlined the need for a partnership in South Asia to provide affordable services to millions of autistic children.

“Bangladesh has been such a fertile source of social innovation,” Ms. Gandhi said while inaugurating an international conference on autism here.

“We applaud your achievements,” she told the two-day conference, which was attended by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and global experts on autism.

Ms. Gandhi, who arrived here on Sunday, besides taking part in an international meet on autism, will receive Bangladesh’s highest State honour awarded posthumously to her mother-in-law, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

“India has held together as one nation, deepened its democracy and accelerated its economic growth (while) Bangladesh has achieved economic and social success beyond anything thought possible at the time of its birth,” she said in her 15-minute speech.

“On crucial issues like the fertility rate, proportion of underweight children, immunization, number of mean years of schooling, child and infant mortality rates, and life expectancy, you are ahead of us,” she noted.

Three-pronged approach

Ms. Gandhi, also the chairperson of the Indian chapter of Autism Speaks, said autism presents an enormous challenge to the region as “there is much about it that we still do not understand.”

The Indian leader proposed a three-pronged approach to address the autism issue through empowering parents, bringing autism victims to centre of attention and creating institutions to undertake research into its various facets.

She said each family with an autistic child has become a resource for others, “creating a ripple effect“.

“The stronger this movement grows, the greater will be the pressure on governments to provide more services,” she noted.

She expected the conference to be a landmark journey together in which the South East Asian autism network would play a vibrant role.

The Congress leader particularly appreciated the initiative of Saima Hossain, the internationally-reputed autism expert and Prime Minister Sheik Hasina’s daughter.

“Science itself in seven decades of research has not yet found clear answers or explanations for its causes. We have slowly learned that autism is a different, and very difficult, way of being,” she noted.

But, Ms. Gandhi said, among those suffering from autism, there are many who, given the right support, could lead normal lives.

Ms. Hasina, who spoke as the special guest, said more than 3,000 children were born worldwide everyday with autistic disorders, but there was no known cause for it.

Treatment is also rare, Ms. Hasina said, adding social perceptions based on prejudice have been causing major damage to the lives of the autistic children.

The Awami League leader said Bangladesh already formed a Disability Foundation to turn these physically or mentally challenged persons into national resources and include them in the mainstream of development.



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