Pope to meet with autistic kids to end stigma

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VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Francis will meet with autistic children and their families in a bid to help raise awareness and end the stigma and isolation of people living with autism spectrum disorders.

The Saturday audience will cap an international conference on autism being hosted this week by the Vatican's health care office. Organizers said Tuesday it was the biggest medical conference of its kind on autism, gathering more than 650 experts from 57 countries.

The Rev. P. Augusto Chendi of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers told reporters the aim of the conference and the papal audience is to "help break the isolation, and in many cases the stigma, that surrounds people affected by autistic spectrum disorders."

While autism is increasingly diagnosed in places like the United States, where about 1 in 68 children are said to be on the spectrum, it is still largely unknown and undiagnosed elsewhere, including in the Vatican's own backyard of Italy, said Dr. Stefano Vicari, head of pediatric neuropsychiatry at the Vatican-owned Bambin Gesu hospital in Rome.

Francis, who has shown great ease around children with special needs, will deliver a speech to the hundreds gathered in the Vatican audience hall. The session will be punctuated by music and movement for the children.

Autism experts said parents of autistic children require particular pastoral care since they are at high risk of getting divorced due to the emotional and financial stress of dealing with their child's disorder.

The Vatican's top health official, Monsignor Zygmunt Zimowski, said his office chose to focus on autism for its conference this year to give families affected by autism hope and attention.

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