The title said it all. "Revealing the Strengths of Learners with Autism," the first conference of its kind in the region held at Nazareth College in the fall, highlighted a growing movement that focuses on what students with autism can do—not on what they can’t.
"More people are starting to realize that this is the way that autism should be viewed," says nationally known autism expert and keynote speaker Brenda Smith Myles. "We need to look at strengths, provide support as necessary, and promote the message that people with autism are not broken and do not need to be fixed."
Sponsored by the School of Education Alice Foley Speaker Series, the School of Health and Human Services, the Nazareth College Lecture and Film Committee, and the Inclusive Childhood Education Department, the all-day Inclusion Institute included meaningful and timely workshops, as well as a screening of the new documentary We Thought You’d Never Ask: Voices of People with Autism by another highly regarded autism expert, Paula Kluth. Parents, educators, service providers, and community members from throughout the state attended.
"I've been working in this field awhile but it's new for a lot of people to think about autism in this way," says Assistant Professor of Education Shanna Jamanis, Ph.D., who coordinated the conference. Instead of focusing on typical topics such as dietary restrictions, behavior therapies, and language development, she helped construct a program on autism that included workshops on, among other things, promoting literacy, how to use assistive technology, and ways to talk about sexuality.
Most federal funding and large-scale fundraising efforts for autism research center around causation, intervention, and treatment. That has to change, say those involved with the conference, who study promising practices for dealing with a condition now believed to affect 1 in 110 children. Yet while the traditional medical model is being challenged as the only way to advance knowledge about autism, money isn't following.
"It's just a lack of understanding," explains Jamanis, whose uncle has autism. "People tend to focus on deficits. They use words like 'obsessions' or 'preoccupation.' I like to use 'fascinations' or 'special interests.' We have to pay more attention to this idea of neurodiversity—diversity in thinking. And we need to embrace it."
Sharon Kofod of Penfield appreciates that the conference reaffirmed the approach she has always used with her 10-year-old son, Hayden Cary, whose diagnosis of mild autism at age four was recently reconfirmed. Hayden is a highly creative boy who can spend hours, sometimes days, drawing accurate reproductions of amusement park rides and other things that attract his attention. His mother works diligently to make sure his teachers figure out and support the ways he learns best.
"People are willing to give you that support if you bring it up, but they generally don't come from that place originally," she says. "They think that if he were more manageable or compliant, then it would be better. I remind them that this is something he has. It's not something that can be taken away."
Dawn Vogler-Elias, Ph.D. assistant professor in communication sciences and disorders, also welcomed the conference's focus. "I was inspired at the institute by talking with educators, paraprofessionals, parents, speech-language pathologists, and students about ways to support children with autism by celebrating their strengths, instead of focusing on their deficits."
Part of the reason there is a larger lens on strengths these days—besides celebrated animal scientist Temple Grandin's notable self-advocacy work with the autism rights movement—is because people with autism are starting to speak out more freely about their experiences and are increasingly participating in similar conferences as guest speakers.
Now it's time for more action from others, says Smith Myles: "What we really need are more supports for applied interventions and applied research that can allow individuals with autism to reach their potential, which we are really beginning to understand is limitless."