Special Needs Now

How an Amazing Nonprofit Is Helping Refugee Families Affected by Autism

A Global Voice for Autism helps autistic kids and their families in underserved, conflict-affected areas.

Autism affects people across national borders indiscriminately, but services vary widely based on where a child lives. This struck me recently when I read a Humans of New York Facebook post about a Syrian refugee family living in Turkey and the challenges their autistic child faces.

The thought of living with my own autistic son in the midst of bombs, terror, instability, and crowded refugee conditions made me weep. As I researched how to help families like this Syrian one, I met Melissa Diamond, the 22-year-old founder and director of A Global Voice for Autism, a nonprofit that brings evidence-based autism treatments to families living in and hailing from conflict-affected areas.

Inspired by a Palestinian mother and autistic child she met during a trip by to Jerusalem for an undergraduate class, Diamond learned that in the West Bank, stigma and shame surround autism. Many children there lack basic autism services, and their parents hide them away at home because the prevailing belief is that the parents somehow caused their children's autism. Diamond founded A Global Voice for Autism to "fight this stigma surrounding autism and to empower communities to embrace individuals with autism in their lives."

It took Diamond several years and a financial award from the Clinton Global Initiative to bring her vision to life. But, now, A Global Voice for Autism has on-the-ground sites in Jenin and Ramallah, Palestine. At their centers, a team of BCBAs offer 12-week parent training cooperatives, where parents learn theory and practice applying the theory with their own kids and with other children in the group. The Global Voice team also runs sibling workshops and community education initiatives. They're just starting to offer private online training between parents and BCBAs, which can bring help to families in remote areas or places where there are no autism centers. By early next year A Global Voice will have a site running in Gaziantep, Turkey. (Where Diamond's hoping to connect the HONY family I mentioned earlier). They are also working with the Somali community in Melissa's home city of Minneapolis.

So far, the Global Voice team has seen wonderful results. Children are making gains across skill areas, parents are feeling more empowered and less ashamed of their children, families are connecting with and supporting each other, mothers (who are often primary caregivers) are feeling less isolated, and slowly, autism awareness is growing in communities that formerly saw it as a condition that resulted from watching too much TV.

But, even with all this good work being done, A Global Voice for Autism still has much to do. You can help by making a donation at their website, contacting Diamond via email if you want to help them attain corporate funding or donations, and if you're a BCBA or experienced line therapist, many volunteer opportunities exist both internationally and in the U.S.

When I asked Diamond what it's like being a Jewish-American woman working in Palestine and other conflict-affected areas, she said this: "We're all people at the end of the day. We want to support others and feel supported, and I think hearing other parents' stories and seeing our common humanity breaks through stereotypes and prejudices."

I couldn't agree more, and I'll leave you with Melissa's motto and the mantra that drives all her work: "Amid hate, choose love. Amid violence, choose peace. Amid fear, choose hope."

Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com and Twitter @jamiepacton.