Caring for people with autism spectrum disorders is caring for families, said Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry.
"Autism spectrum disorders affect families, not just the person who has the illness," the archbishop told reporters at the Vatican Nov. 18 as he introduced a Nov. 20-22 interdisciplinary conference for health care workers, caregivers and ministers.
Coinciding with the conference, Pope Francis was expected to have his first official audience with people with ASD and their families in the Vatican audience hall Nov. 22. Conference participants and professionals who work in the field of ASD were expected to be present as well.
The meeting with the pope was expected to include a moment of prayer, but also music because, organizers said, the festive spirit of the encounter would facilitate the participation of people with ASD.
The disorders include autism, Asperger's syndrome and Rett syndrome, which create difficulties for people in the areas of social interaction and communication, though with varying degrees, ranging from mild to debilitating severity.
The Vatican conference, under the theme "The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope," was designed to bring together international experts in the areas of medicine, psychology, family life and pastoral care. The main topics included epidemiology, health care policy, and advances in research, prevention, pharmacology and various therapies, as well as educational, theological and pastoral approaches. More than 700 participants from 57 countries had registered.
The social impact of ASD is often isolation and marginalization. But Camillian Father Augusto Chendi, undersecretary of the council, said the conference "intends to contribute to breaking the isolation and, in many cases, the stigma that weigh on people affected with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and often on their families."
Children and adults with ASD require an enormous commitment of time, resources and care from their families, and the church seeks to express its care, closeness and solidarity to them, Archbishop Zimowski said. ASD also has a great impact on schools, health and social services, parish communities and society in general.
In addition to offering a forum for an exchange of information and ideas, Archbishop Zimowski said conference organizers also wanted to offer a context in which people who live and work with ASD, even the most difficult cases, can renew their hope.
Dr. Stefano Vicari, a child neuro-psychiatrist at the Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome, said families with children who have ASD are more at risk of breaking down and experience a significant rate of divorce. Furthermore, studies indicate that children with ASD demonstrate higher stress levels and a lower quality of life compared with children affected by other psychiatric pathologies, he said.
While a wide range of studies into the causes of ASD have turned up numerous genetic and environmental factors, none of them independently "are either necessary or sufficient in determining the pathology," he said.
"Some genetic conditions seem to be more linked to autism and numerous genes seem to be implicated," he told journalists. "While from the environmental point of view, there is no confirmation of the determining role of vaccines or food diets, however being exposed to polluting agents during pregnancy and the advanced age of parents" do seem to be determining factors.
Organizers said they hoped the conference would help to raise awareness about ASD, whose incidence has increased in recent years. Worldwide, about one child in every 110 is estimated to have ASD; in the United States, the occurrence is higher. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one child in every 68 is diagnosed with an autism-related disorder.
For the past three years, the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers has issued a message for World Autism Day, April 2.