Vatican Drops the Ball on World Autism Day

Vatican Drops the Ball on World Autism Day April 5, 2018

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As many as 77 million people around the world suffer from autism spectrum disorders, according to the Autism Society, plus the millions of friends and family members indirectly affected by these pathologies. For this reason over 16,000 famous landmarks around the world, from the Empire State Building in New York to the Great Pyramids in Egypt, were lit up in blue this Monday 2nd to raise awareness of these most debilitating neurodevelopmental disorders. But where was the Vatican on World Autism Awareness Day? Lamentably, the Press Office of the Holy See decided to publish only in Italian the full text of the message for the day from the Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Cardinal Peter Turkson.

Although in his Regina Caeli address on Monday Pope Francis assured the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square of a “special prayer for World Autism Awareness Day” – and Cardinal Turkson’s message was published in full, in Italian, in the Sala Stampa’s daily news bulletin, or bollettinoit was not until about 1pm Central European Time, when Vatican News published both of these stories, that English-speaking Catholics had any idea of Francis’ or Turkson’s involvement in World Autism Day. If, that is, they check the news service that replaced Vatican Radio as part of the Holy See’s media reform. Nothing on the Pope’s or Integral Human Development’s Twitter accounts, either. Why leave it so long to publish such an important message on such an important day – and then not release the full text in English?

Little objection could be made to the content of Cardinal Turkson’s message. The prelate affirmed, among other things, the great importance of governments, Church and healthcare providers working together “to respond adequately to the needs of people with autism spectrum disorders” and to foster “the culture of encounter and solidarity… in spite of that of exclusion and of waste” which relegates sufferers “to the margins of society”. Noting that the prevalence of autism has grown in the past fifty years – to the point in which estimates now suggest that as many as one in every 160 children are affected by by the disorder – the Cardinal also urged the overcoming of the “isolation” and “stigma” that weighs on both autistic people and their families.

What should be objected to, though, is the timing and the manner of release of the message. What I’m sure many autism sufferers and their families would have given to have heard, in a louder and stronger voice, and in their native language, Cardinal Turkson’s recognition of the feeling they have at times of “insufficiency, helplessness and frustration” at having been saddled with the disorder.

Why didn’t the Vatican then publish Turkson’s message in English? Early in the morning? In the bollettino? On Twitter? If Rome is serious about contributing to events like World Autism Awareness Day it must do a better job of getting its message out there, if only to avoid the impression that it stringing a few words together be interpreted as a token gesture. Certainly, the Vatican media reform – even after the resignation of its former communications chief, Dario Edoardo Viganò, after the ‘Lettergate’ scandal – has a long way to go to reach the efficiency the faithful, and the world, deserve.

The White House lit up in blue for World Autism Awareness Day, 2017 (Flickr/White House)
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