Give me a place to stand…

8 Nov

Last week I stepped out of the real world for a few days while I attended the 2010 Geneva Centre for Autism symposium, here in Toronto. It was a phenomenal event – it was much more than I had expected it would be. When the conference ended on Friday afternoon, I literally felt as if I had to step out of a bubble back into my life. But I resumed my life with an altered perspective, and a deep new understanding of my son.

For three days, I was in the presence of true greatness. I had the opportunity to listen to presentations by professionals in the field of autism, such as Tony Attwood and Nancy Minshew.  I heard talks by individuals who have lived with autism themselves, who have made successful lives for themselves – people like Temple Grandin and Stephen Shore. I listened to the beautiful music of two people with autism, Michael Moon and Samantha Mutis, which brought tears to my eyes. I was surrounded by hundreds of delegates – teachers, therapists, other parents like myself – who were all gathered together for the sole purpose of learning how to help and support people with autism, and thereby make the world a better place.

Going into the conference, I expected to learn some new stuff. That was, after all, my reason for going. I wanted to get some insights, hear about new research, learn about possible ways of doing things differently and more effectively for George. Did I accomplish this goal? Let me put it this way. Not only did I learn more about autism than I would have thought possible in three days, I actually feel as if I got to step into my son’s mind. Listening to the speakers, many of whom live their lives on the spectrum, I got to step into the world of autism in a way that I have, until now, not been able to accomplish.

I feel honoured that these individuals allowed me into their world and shared of themselves so freely. These people, for whom life has been a series of challenges that most of us will never understand, have collectively turned me into a better person and a better Mom.  They have, through their willingness to share their experiences and give hope to parents of children with autism, created a landscape in which my son can have a better, more productive, more fulfilling life. What an opportunity that is.  What a gift those people have given to me and my family.  I feel truly blessed to have been there.

I learned that in order to teach social communication, we need to teach social thinking, and that in too many instances we focus on the diagnosis – the word “autism” – rather than on the specific challenges of the individual. I heard about how in all of us – especially people with autism – negative emotions may manifest as anger, and that we should always dig deep and look for the real underlying emotion. I have learned to use the phrases “expected” and “unexpected” when describing behaviour because the terms “appropriate” and “inappropriate” imply a value judgment that doesn’t help anyone. I now know that instead of fighting George’s fascination with garage doors and writing it off as an autistic obsession, I should use it as a stepping stone to help him learn and accomplish new things. And much more.  So much more.  I am still internally processing everything.

I left the symposium with the knowledge that so much is possible. I can see a whole new world opening up for my boy.  It is up to me and Gerard to ease the path for him, to help him see where he can go and what he can achieve.

While I was at the conference, I bought myself a piece of autism awareness jewellery.  It is a chain with a puzzle piece on it, the puzzle piece being the universal symbol for autism awareness. Behind the puzzle piece is a circular disk with a quote engraved on it. The quote is a perfect reflection of the possibilities that lie ahead for George, if he is given the right support along the way.

“Give me a place to stand and I can move the world”  ~ Archimedes ~

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