Junior Melissa Diamond sat among leaders in the autism field at the United Nations April 2, prepared to speak about the therapy program she started in Jenin, Palestine for children with autism.

Diamond said she was honored to be able to share her experiences in Palestine with such an important audience.

"I hope that I was able to connect with them in a way that got the message across that politics should not interfere with the provision of autism services," she said.

Her speech at the United Nations covered the basis of what her Jenin project did. She spoke about teaching mothers to work together within the community rather than keeping them reliant on outside assistance. Teaching child behavior and communicative skills would empower the family and community to rely on each other.

She also discussed the need for autism services that transcend all national and political boundaries, and emphasized that services should be available everywhere regardless of the political situation in a region.

Diamond's speech was followed by a brief video featuring reflections from the mothers in the program. It was one way to convey the families' experiences and to allow the audience to hear from them personally, she said.

"I don't like using notes to speak because I find it easier to give a smooth presentation when I improvise," she said.

Instead, she made a list of points to highlight and reviewed them before the speech.

Last summer, Diamond hosted a fundraiser in Minneapolis to raise money for the Jenin project. One of her guests who spoke at the fundraiser, Idil Abdull, a Somali parent of a child with autism, recommended Diamond to a friend at the United Nations.

Soon after meeting with Jacqueline Aidenbaum, World Autism Awareness Day founder and coordinator at the United Nations, Diamond was offered an invitation to speak.

Diamond's opportunity at the United Nations introduced her to several people working in the autism field including John Miller, a board member of the Autism Society of Florida, and Gary Mayerson, the founder of Mayerson & Associates, the first law firm focused on representing individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

"At the event I was able to form connections that will be valuable both now and in the future and I am excited to have had this opportunity," Diamond said.

Diamond's initial interest in the field began with University of Richmond's pilgrimage program to Israel. She traveled to Israel in summer 2012 and learned about the lack of autism resources for Palestinian children, which led to her visit to Palestine the following winter.

Diamond was awarded a grant at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference from the Resolution Project to create her program in Jenin and build a small therapy team.

Kitti Robinson and Daniel Johnson, two members of Diamond's team, worked with the children on communication and providing a skill set for the mothers.

The lack of awareness and the lack of resources were two issues the new program addressed, Diamond said.

Johnson said the relationships that families built among one another during the course of the project were valuable.

"When the children grow up and face similar challenges, I think that support group will make a really big difference for them," Johnson said.

The team's role was to provide the theoretical training and monitor the mothers with their children, give demonstrations and provide feedback.

Something that the mothers had the greatest desire to work on was communication, Diamond said.

"It was much more of an impact that I expected," Robinson said. "It's really significant to be able to take your kid into the community and not fear how people are going to react to you. That was my biggest take-away."

Contact reporter Sheetal Babu at sheetal.babu@richmond.edu