There have been 46 previous Autism Society conferences but number 47 in New Orleans was my first. What a gathering! The hallways were filled with people—professionals, families, autistic individuals—who were ready to learn and network. I enjoyed the exchange of ideas and being able to meet so many amazing people face-to-face.
I learned what many autistic individuals are accomplishing and felt inspired. I listened to the ways families are creating their own opportunities for their children and felt inspired. I discovered professionals, programs, and products that are making autistic lives better and felt inspired.
Here are the 8 powerful messages I am taking away from this year’s Autism Society Conference:
Community is everything
The conference started off on a high note with keynote speakers John Donovan and Caren Zucker, authors of “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism.” They talked about Donald Triplett, the first person in history to be diagnosed with autism. His mom, Mary, refused to institutionalize him and instead cultivated a caring community who embraced her son’s neuro-diversity.
She created a legacy of a loving community that has embraced her son for over 80 years. Donald is accepted and admired for who he is. And because of the community support, he has grown and thrived his entire life.
Listen to each other
We are a wonderfully diverse community made up of autistic individuals, family members, caregivers and professionals. As such, it means that there are many viewpoints so it’s important that we as a community stay open to an exchange of ideas.
My thoughts about autism come from being a parent. My son’s thoughts come from being an autistic individual. A professional’s thoughts from her experiences working with people on the spectrum. And so on…
We have so much we can learn from each other as long as we listen with open hearts and minds.
In almost every presentation I attended, “presume competency” was a bullet point. I love this saying because it is optimistic and positive. It shifts our thinking as parents and professionals and puts the focus on “can” versus “can’t.”
Be your own independence advocate
We must teach our children to become their own advocates for independence. Kate Palmer, the president of GRASP (a non-profit in support of ASD adults), said it starts with including our children in any decision-making process on their behalf. For example, let them sit in during an IEP meeting.
“In order to be successful in the workplace, and in other aspects of life, each person needs to feel he/she has the ability and opportunity to make choices and decisions, to exercise control over services, supports, and other assistance, to participate in and contribute to their communities, and to obtain needed services for success.”
Go for progress not perfection
My son, Jonathan, was a presenter at the conference. I was his “wingman” and as he shared his story, I would pop in to share what I did as his mom to help him on his path towards independence. Jonathan said that he grows more and more independent at his own pace. He’s always making progress, taking steps and moving forward. That’s what we all should be aiming for in our lives, right?
Start a home-based business
There were several sessions on entrepreneurship. This was so exciting to me! Starting your own business is such a viable solution, especially for individuals with unique interests.
I had the opportunity to see:
- The Resnik Family of SMILE Biscotti
- Joseph Steffy of Poppin Joe’s Kettle Korn
- Jennie Trocchio Kirkland of Picasso Einstein (self-employment education)
I’ll be covering each of them in future blog posts but make sure you check them out on your own. And don’t be afraid to start your own companies. Many families start as small, home-based businesses that have grown into bigger enterprises.
You are not alone
Standing at the entrance of the exhibit hall, I was blown away by the evolution of support for our community. College programs, transition services and programs, sensory products, autistic entrepreneurs with amazing products they created…It was a happy experience to see what’s out there now. (I’ll be sharing my favorite discoveries over the next few months.)
Anything is possible
Never limit your thinking about what’s possible. The highlights were listening to autistic individuals and their stories. Chloe Rothschild shared her strategies for living with autism, road bumps and all. Anita Lesko and Abraham Talmage Nielsen discussed the blossoming of their romantic relationship and their “All Autistic Wedding.”
And then there’s 2015 “Advocate of the Year,” Conner Cummings, who brings his Disney magic with him wherever he goes. These are but a few representations of the many there who were truly inspiring.
Click here for more on this year’s conference. Many of the presenters have speaker notes that you can download.