Dawson Attends Global Autism Event at UN

Stigma among topics discussed; speaker to address at April 12 Duke event

Monday, April 9, 2018
Picture of Dr. Geraldine Dawson at the UN
Dr. Geraldine Dawson's selfie of arriving at the UN, hosting World Autism Awareness Day events

Last week’s World Autism Awareness Day at the United Nations opened with a keynote address by Julia Bascom, Executive Director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network--and a person on the autism spectrum. For Geraldine Dawson, PhD, Director of the Duke Autism and Brain Development Center, the address represents an excellent example of global advances around autism.

 Just 10 years ago, Dr. Dawson attended the White House event marking April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day. The United Nations subsequently approved the annual observance and hosts the international event.

Since then, while focusing on autism research, education, and outreach, Dr. Dawson has had, “the privilege of attending the United Nations annual World Autism Awareness event, which promotes autism awareness and acceptance and also provides an opportunity for leaders from around the world to come together to assess progress in developing awareness and services across the globe.” The theme for last week’s event was, “Empowering Women and Girls with Autism.”


While there, she reconnected with Saima Wazed Hossain of Bangladesh, at left, whom Dawson described as a “globally renowned champion for the cause of autism spectrum disorder,” and who was appointed in April 2017 as a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Autism in the South-East Asia Region. Hossain was instrumental in drafting Bangladesh’s resolution calling on governments worldwide to improve education, healthcare, and services for persons with autism. It was adopted unanimously by the UN in 2012, opening the door for better lives for many around the world.


Reflecting on the 2018 UN event, Dr. Dawson noted four major topics addressed by speakers: empowerment of persons with autism to impact policies; the stigma of autism; under-diagnosis of girls with autism; and employment of persons on the autism spectrum disorder.

Persons on the Spectrum Lead the Way





One of the biggest changes in the annual event over the past decade, Dr. Dawson observed, is that, “now the event is led by persons with autism, that is, autism self-advocates,” pointing to Julia Bascom’s address.

“This shift itself recognizes the importance of accepting and empowering autistic people to have a voice and shape the discussion and priorities regarding supports and services for people on the spectrum,” Dr. Dawson said. Still, “the discrimination faced by persons on the spectrum is significant and includes economic, employment, education, and healthcare discrimination.” At right, Dr. Dawson joins Andy Shih, Senior Vice President of Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization, in front of the UN.

Stigma Remains a Significant Barrier; Topic of April 12 Duke Event

Even with that kind of progress, the stigma of autism remains a very significant issue not only in the U.S., but worldwide, Dr. Dawson noted. “There is often misunderstanding about autism and this affects access to education, healthcare, and employment.”

Stigma is the theme at the Center’s April 12 observance of National Autism Awareness Week. Dr. Roy Grinker, a cultural anthropologist at George Washington University and father to a daughter on the spectrum, has studied how people in different parts of the world view neurodevelopmental disorders. “Attendees will learn more about how attitudes influence how we treat people who have various brain conditions,” she said.

Early Diagnosis Often Delayed for Girls

It’s known that boys have been significantly more prone to be on the autism spectrum than girls. “We now know that girls and women tend to be overlooked in terms of early diagnosis,” Dr. Dawson said. “They are better at ‘camouflaging’ their symptoms and therefore often don’t get access to the services and accommodations they need.”

The different rates of autism in boys versus girls are likely due to underlying sex differences in brain development that make males more vulnerable to developing autism. However, “We now believe that we have under-diagnosed autism in girls and that the sex ratio may be less extreme than we thought,” she added. 

Understanding Enhances Employment, Independence

The program at the United Nations Dr. Dawson attended focused on employment of persons on the spectrum, an event called the “Autism Advantage: Return on Investment.” This was attended by business leaders, academics, self-advocates, government and NGO leaders from around the world. Dawson sat by May Lynn Mackenzie, Senior Vice President, Talent Acquisition, Bank of America.  She talked to Dr. Dawson about Bank of America’s effort nationwide to find and employ talented persons with disabilities, including those on the spectrum. 

Business leaders from SAP, JP Morgan, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and many other companies attended to find out how best to recruit and retain persons with autism in their companies.  Among the speakers were Mark Vanderbosch, Dean, Ivey Business School; U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, and Thorkel Sonne, Founder, Specialsterne. Thorkel inspired SAP to create its “Autism at Work” program, which has set a goal of employing autistic persons for 1 percent of its workforce. 

“Our Center and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business have been collaborating with the SAP Autism at Work program and we have hosted the head of this program at Duke in the past,” Dr. Dawson said. “We will be employing our first person with autism at the Duke Center for Autism this summer.”

Dawson is excited about the momentum she sees in the area of employment of persons with disabilities.  “Business are now viewing employment not as an act of goodwill but rather as a way of enhancing their businesses, Dawson said. “It’s increasingly recognized that diversity in the workplace stimulates creativity and innovation. 

“By accommodating the needs of those with disabilities, a company can reap the benefits of a diverse workforce,” she added.


About Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that is present early in life and usually is life-long. People with autism have challenges in the areas of social interaction and communication and have a restricted range of interests and repetitive behaviors. It affects approximately 1 in 68 people. Early detection and intervention can greatly improve outcomes of persons on the spectrum. Autism affects people worldwide and, although we don’t have good prevalence statistics for many parts of the world, the data we have suggests that the prevalence is similar across the globe.

 About Dr. Dawson

Geraldine Dawson, PhD, directs the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, a group of clinicians and scientists dedicated to helping each individual with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders reach his or her full potential, thereby allowing society to benefit from the talents and diversity which persons on the autism spectrum offer. She is a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Pediatrics, and Psychology and Neuroscience. She also chairs the Faculty Governance Committee for the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.