VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis tenderly embraced children with autism spectrum disorders, some of whom avoided meeting his gaze, during an audience Saturday aimed at offering solidarity to people living with the condition.
The pope urged governments and institutions to respond to the needs of people with autism to help break "the isolation and, in many cases also the stigma" associated with the disorders, which are characterized by varying levels of social impairment and communication difficulties.
"It is necessary the commitment of everyone, in order to promote encounters and solidarity, in a concrete action of support and renewed promotion of hope," the pontiff said.
After offering a prayer, Francis greeting the young children and teens with autism and their families, kissing the children and cupping their faces in his hands as he circulated the auditorium at the Vatican. Some appeared to avoid the pope's eyes, while one teen whom the pope had greeted followed the pontiff and gave him another hug from behind.
Families of children affected with autism were touched by the pope's words.
"It was an explosion of emotions," said Maria Cristina Fiordi, a mother of a child with autism. "For us, we are parents of a child affected with autism, this meeting was very important. It was as an outstretched hand through a problem that is very often not considered in the right way."
Franco Di Vincenzo, another parent of a child with autism, said he took strength from the pope's call not to hide, "that we should live with this problem in serenity."
The audience was attended by some 7,000 people, including health care workers who had international conference on autism hosted by the Vatican's health care office this week.
While autism is increasingly being 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, according to Dr. Stefano Vicari, head of pediatric neuropsychiatry at the Vatican-owned Bambin Gesu hospital in Rome.
Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.