Pope Francis kisses a baby at a Pontifical Council for Health Care conference on autism Nov. 22, 2014. Credit: Petrik Bohomil / CNA.

Pope Francis has said autistic disorders are nothing to be ashamed of, as he encouraged everyone to build solidarity to ensure that autistic persons are not isolated. “Everyone should be committed to promoting acceptance, encounter and solidarity through concrete support and by encouraging renewed hope,” he told participants in his Nov. 22 audience with autistic persons and their families. Through this support, he said, “we can contribute to breaking down the isolation and, in many cases, the stigma burdening people with autism spectrum disorders, and just as often their families.” Pope Francis addressed participants in a conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care to discuss the topic of autism spectrum disorders. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, manifesting within the first three years of life. It is characterized by impaired social interaction, as well as impaired verbal and non-verbal communication. The congress, titled “The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope,” drew 650 experts from 57 countries around the world to talk about the broad array of topics related to the disease and its treatment. In his address, Pope Francis said that persons affected by autism spectrum disorders represent “an area that appeals to the direct responsibility of governments and institutions, without of course forgetting the responsibility of Christian communities.” He encouraged everyone to play their part in constructing a culture of encounter and solidarity in which no one affected by the disease, including their families, are left isolated. The Pope stressed the importance of accompanying autistic persons and their families in a personal way by listening to their needs, which “arise from the depths of a pathology which, all too often, struggles to be properly diagnosed and accepted without shame or withdrawing into solitude.” Pope Francis advocated for the creation of an “on the ground” network of support and services that are both comprehensive and accessible for persons affected by autism spectrum disorders. These services, he said, should not only involve the parents of persons with autism spectrum disorders, but also grandparents, friends, therapists, educators and pastoral workers. By their involvement, these people can “help families overcome the feelings, which can sometimes arise, of inadequacy, uselessness and frustration.” The Roman Pontiff thanked the families and associations who are already doing much, as well as those who offered their testimonies during the conference. “Moreover, I want to encourage the hard work of academics and researchers, so that they may discover therapies and support tools, to help and heal and, above all, prevent the onset of these conditions as soon as possible.” In addition to his previous appeals, the Bishop of Rome encouraged everyone to respect and give attention to the rights of the patients, as well as their needs and potential, so that the dignity of each person might be safeguarded. He closed his audience with prayers for all who are sick, for their caretakers and for all health care workers, before invoking the protection of the Virgin Mary.