I have had the opportunity this week to attend (and present) at the Autism Society Annual Conference. I have been attending this conference regularly for the last 10-12 years and it never ceases to impress me. In the last 15 years, lots of other autism groups have begun and there are many other conferences that are held nationally and internationally now than when I began attending. However, the Autism Society (formerly the Autism Society of America) has always held a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons. It is the only organization I know that tries to be everything to everyone involved in autism. While this mission is sometimes difficult to achieve, it also means that there is something for everyone within their group. It provides opportunities for parents to learn from professionals, but it also offers opportunities for professionals to learn from parents–something missing in many situations. This is also something that history has shown us is equally important as most significant changes in the field of autism have been pushed first by parents. In fact, the organization itself was begun by parents who refused to accept that they were responsible for their children’s autism (i.e., refrigerator mothers). The Autism Society became a place for families to go for support and education, not judgment and blame. Over the years the Autism Society went on to provide another key function–as a place for individuals on the spectrum themselves to gather and network. While organizations designed for self-advocacy are more plentiful now, when individuals on the spectrum began to gather at the Autism Society, there were few places that provided this type of gathering place. Now, the Autism Society provides another unique opportunity–for professionals to learn from individuals on the spectrum. Indeed, the Autism Society has a Panel of Professional Advisers and a Panel of Individuals on the Spectrum, each of which provides advice and guidance to the organization as a whole.
During this week…
I gave 2 presentations that allowed me to reflect on the unique nature of this society. In my first, I presented a preconference session on communication with my colleague Susan Kabot. We had a true international audience including participants from England, Bangladesh, and Mozambique including family members, professionals, and individuals on the spectrum from across the states. One of the parents from abroad noted that they were there to absorb as much knowledge and information as they possibly could to take back to work with their child on the spectrum. We had the opportunity to talk to parents who have been dealing with autism for quite a while as well as parents whose children were newly diagnosed. An individual on the spectrum provided some great perspective about how some approaches can affect the student on the spectrum. In our second session, we gave a presentation to help parents evaluate school programs of their children on the spectrum. This was a lively session with a great discussion between school administrators and teachers and parents regarding the issues that parents face everyday in trying to advocate effectively with schools for their children. The interfacing of this varied audience highlighted the need for more discussions between school professionals and parents in forums such as this. It also inspired us to think about proposing a panel next year of different professionals involved in education, including advocates, who would engage in a question/answer format with the audience to provide parents more opportunities to ask questions about how to manage some of the issues involved with seeking quality education for their children on the spectrum. Conferences that focus on professionals alone or families alone rarely provide this type of opportunity for reflection.
So, as the Autism Society conference comes to a close and I look back on the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with, old friends and new, I encourage all of you to learn more about the organization. Consider checking out their website. If you like what you see, think about joining and helping this organization to continue to provide the unique assistance it offers with collaboration between families, professionals, and individuals on the spectrum. Maybe I’ll see you at next year’s conference!!