Pope Francis tackles autism as families seek hope, support

Advocates hope that Pope Francis' lending his support to autism awareness can give hope to weary parents and chip away at some of the stigma.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Michele and Vinny Arbogast of New York were devastated when their son Kyle was diagnosed with autism as he struggled to speak as a toddler nearly a decade ago.

“Autism turns your world upside down,” Michele Arbogast said. “It affects every member of the family.”

Kyle is now 10 and one of an estimated 70 million people affected by the disorder around the world.

From left to right, Ryan, Vincent, Jacqueline, front, Eileen, Michele, and Kyle Arbogast. Photo courtesy of Michele Arbogast

From left to right, Ryan, Vincent, Jacqueline, front, Eileen, Michele, and Kyle Arbogast. Photo courtesy of Michele Arbogast

This week, he traveled to Rome with his twin sister, Jacqueline, and the rest of his family for the first-ever global gathering on autism hosted by the Vatican.

“There was no question in my mind, we had to come,” said Michele Arbogast, who gave up her job as a TV producer to help take care of her son. “In my darkest moments it was my faith that I turned to.”

More than 650 experts from 57 countries have come together for a three-day conference organized by the Vatican body responsible for pastoral health care to discuss diagnosis, treatment, research and support for families.

Pope Francis, who is known for his compassion and often pictured at his weekly audience in St Peter’s Square embracing the disabled, is due to address the final session on Saturday (Nov. 22). Michele Arbogast hopes the pope can help raise autism awareness among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, especially in poorer nations.

“Pope Francis has changed the dynamics. He reaches out to those in need,” said Arbogast, who also works for the New-York based Autism Speaks foundation.

“Words from the Holy Father will reach the smallest villages, touch hearts, change minds and help people to volunteer and help other families.”

Former General Electric CEO Bob Wright and his wife, Suzanne, were also among the conference participants. They established the Autism Speaks foundation in 2005 after their grandson Christian was diagnosed with autism.

“It is critical for major institutions of faith to embrace those affected by autism and lend their support in raising awareness of the disorder worldwide,” said Bob Wright, also a former president, CEO and chairman of NBC and NBC Universal.

Suzanne and Bob Wright in St Peter's Basilica. Photo courtesy of Autism Speaks

Suzanne and Bob Wright in St Peter’s Basilica. Photo courtesy of Autism Speaks

His foundation has become a leading autism advocacy and research organization and invested more than $500 million, mostly in science and medical research.

“There is no cure for autism, no known causes and no approved medical treatments of its core symptoms,” Suzanne Wright said. “Our families struggle daily for acceptance and basic services, and parents can barely afford the cost of essential treatments and therapy for their children. We are incredibly grateful that the Vatican has recognized this need. ”

The Wrights’ foundation is sponsoring a Global Autism Public Health Initiative with more than 60 countries to make freely available new methods for diagnosing and providing autism intervention.

It has also been driving reform in the U.S. The couple said 38 states have passed autism insurance reform and more than $3 billion in new federal funding for research and monitoring has been dedicated by Congress.

“We must now turn our attention to the rest of world – that is why this conference is so important in helping to raise global awareness of autism,” said Bob Wright.