Building a better future for Panama's adults with autism
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Building a better future for Panama's adults with autism

Humble, patient, resilient and hard-working.

Ask someone that knows her to describe Dabaiba Conte, founder and president of Fundación Soy Capaz in Panama, and these are the words you’re likely to hear.

The idea of creating a nonprofit organization serving the needs of adults with autism first occurred to Dabaiba when her son, Dariush, started high school. Dariush was diagnosed with autism when he was about three years old, and earning his high school diploma would be a huge accomplishment — but in Panama, it also marked the end of the road for the young man. After graduation, his life would be spent at home, with few opportunities to progress in higher education, recreation or work.

Though incidence of autism was quickly escalating in Panama at the time, there was still very little awareness about the condition and widespread ignorance about the capabilities of adult with autism. Nor were there any services available to autistic adults left without a caretaker when their parents died.

In 2006, Dabaiba officially established Fundación Soy Capaz (“I’m Capable” in Spanish), Panama’s first NGO for adults with autism and their families. Working with her own resources, Dabaiba started small, holding workshops in the dining room of her home, and the organization began to grow from there.

Today, Soy Capaz offers different classes and social activities for adults, while parents receive support and orientation. Dabaiba also trains adults with autism to become independent and to access opportunities within the workforce.

Though her main focus is the adult population, the scope of Dabaiba’s initiatives has benefited people of all ages. She offers language and occupational therapy for children and adolescents and organizes an annual autism awareness walk, as well as an annual symposium to educate parents and teachers.

A national ‘hero’

In 2011, Panama’s government declared April “Autism Month,” and Dabaiba received official recognition from the government for her work. The following year, after a public voting process that garnered more than 200,000 votes, she was named the 2012 Hero for Panama, winning out of a field of 10 nominees in a nationally televised event.

With the award money, she was able to put a down payment on a plot of land where she plans to build the first residence for adults with autism. The award also brought more attention within Panama to the autism cause and the foundation’s work.

Support and awareness has continued to grow in the wake of the awards. In 2013, the country carried out its first autism survey, and, in 2014, Soy Capaz issued Panama’s first autism directory, listing all doctors, therapists, clinics and schools that serve individuals with autism.

In August, Soy Capaz finished payments on the plot of land, and the organization has begun planning for construction of the group home. The founders envision the home as an assisted-living facility for adults with autism; a community where they can live when their families can no longer take care of them and where they will continue to build their independent living skills.

For Dabaiba, the home is not only a symbol of success after her years of commitment and hard work — it is also a personal victory for her and for other parents who have children with autism.

“It is not easy to raise money for the autism cause in Panama, but paying off the land, we feel a step closer to fulfilling our dream of giving our kids a home for when we are no longer around,” she says.