Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Experiences at ANCA(R) 2004

The nice folks at the ANCA(R) Foundation in Vancouver, B.C., asked me to write a few words on my experiences at this year's autism conference and surrounding events. Some of the details are a bit specific to that community, but I hope you all will still enjoy my remarks that are reproduced below.




By Lars Perner
Blog: http://delightfulreflections.blogspot.com

This summer was the first time I did not have to rush back from the ANCA® summer conference to another conference or teaching summer school, so I got to spend two weeks this year. Two weeks sounds like a long time, but how fast they went by! To make a shameless commercial plug, I am greatly looking forward to November.

Before the conference, Leonora was scheduled to speak to a group of professionals and paraprofessionals in Maple Ridge. You all know better than I do where that is—I don’t have much of a sense of direction—but it involves some travel away from Vancouver in one of the four geographic directions. Well, I guess I can eliminate West for logistical reasons. Individuals in this group worked with people with a variety of conditions—not just those on the autistic spectrum. It is important, however, to try to share what we have learned in the autism setting with others who may be able to adapt the ideas to their needs. The world needs the best and the brightest to work on autism, but we can only spare the best and the brightest. Others are needed to work on other challenges. We, in turn, can benefit from what they bring from other settings, and the questions they bring and the points they raise in discussions can help inspire our thinking.

Leonora presented a number of ideas based on her experience and the group had some interesting discussions. One topic that came up was that of terminology used to describe our population. Some people feel that using the term “autistic” is too much of a label. Leonora pointed out, however, that few people in the group would feel all that uncomfortable being “labeled” as Canadians. My preferred term is “individual on the autistic spectrum” since, to me, this description seems to emphasize individual differences. But terminology, ultimately, is a matter of taste and it really isn’t something that should distract us too much from important issues. On other occasions, I have heard people object to the spectrum term, suggesting that this sounds like something from which one could fall off. I am not particularly worried, however, since gravity on the spectrum seems to be quite adequate. Not necessarily enough to be constraining, but enough for me not to be worried even though I have neither strings nor a safety net as backup.

We also had discussions of challenges faced with specific individuals. To be on the safe side with respect to confidentiality, I am not going to mention anything specific here, but suffice it to say that people seemed quite flexible in responding to individual needs. One parent, for example, raised a question about a son who was unwilling to dispose of an “obsolete” piece of furniture. She was quite content not to force disposal, but wanted to be sure inevitable problems would not be merely postponed by keeping the redundant item.

The autism community needs a variety of different kinds of people, and for my part, I am essentially a pure theoretician. I have little practice working with actual individuals although people often find my ideas useful. This is one of the reasons that I always learn a great deal at ANCA® events where the staff actually has to work with “nuts and bolts” issues of real people. I get to go home and relax after writing and talking, but not so for the staff or parents. So, I in turn get a little more insight—and a bit of a reality check—each time I see “the practitioners” at work.

Shuttling back and forth between Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast was an idyllic experience. Before the conference, we had the support group event and preparations for the reception and conference. Before the reception, we got to put the finishing touches on the new ANCA® headquarters and two client groups had their very creative presentations. We got to meet numerous interesting individuals at the reception. Isn’t it ironic that autism conferences are often major social events?

During the conference, Stephen and I offered a great deal of wisdom, and those who attended genuinely received a treat. In return, participants also contributed interesting ideas. The great news is that those of you who attend the November conference will get even more stuff crammed into the seminar. Stephen and I will try—and I emphasize the word “try”—to be a bit more concise. Leonora and Charlie will then address how some of the more theoretical ideas discussed fit into practical programs.

After the conference, we had a few days of respite, allowing Leonora, Charlie, and me to talk about new ideas. It was then off to the camping trip. Spending several days at a campsite that did not even feature Internet access wasn’t really all that bad—particularly since I got to check my e-mail once in the local shopping mall. Camping was a chance to see people in a different setting. We had some nice walks and talks. A lot of people participated in food preparations. Some misguided souls consumed a lot of toxic carbohydrates, but they seemed to survive the experience.

We had an interesting discussion about an advertising series that was running in the British media. There were some very grabbing ads dealing with issues such as literal thinking. The consensus seemed to be that the ads were a bit on the condescending side, but well intentioned. With some more enlightened explanatory text, they could work quite well.

As we returned from the camping, we were all exhausted, but Leonora, Charlie, and I still managed a bit more brainstorming.

This summer played at least a modest part in helping make this a better world. The benefits will be reaped for years to come!

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