Since my book was published, I have had the privilege of speaking about our family journey in a variety of venues: bookstores, libraries, radio, podcasts, public television, support groups, and community service meetings. Most recently, I’ve been to two locales and realized this is where I want focus my attention: a place I can have the full attention of the audience; where you are specifically there to learn, and learning is in fact is expected. Yes, you guessed it: I’m talking about school.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to a classroom of college students who were each interested (or already working) in the field of autism. The fields of study ranged from occupational therapist, behavioral therapist, and physical therapists. I had no idea what to expect and did not want to talk down to them in the area of autism. Picking and choosing what to say or more so what not to say was just speculation. The professor wanted me to leave them with an ‘aha’ moment. That too was daunting. What could a wrinkling mid-forties woman say to bright eyed, firm-skinned college students? Perhaps they were just really polite, but I can say my talk was well received. Hands went up throughout the whole presentation with delving questions. We got off topic a lot and I loved it.
Later that day, I received an email from one of the students-it was a lengthy email telling me about her life and pursuits-boy is that girl busy! But here is what I loved the most-and not just because it’s about me:
…I just wanted to send this to thank you for coming in today and all of your insight. Being able to hear people’s stories and learn from their experiences is really what drives me to become an SLP. I really appreciated your honesty about the feelings that parents go through when their child is diagnosed and I think it transcends ASD parents…
See what I mean? She got it. The whole idea of why I want to speak about autism is conveying empathy for something you may not have experienced in your own life. If that isn’t the biggest part of learning, I don’t know what is.
My next victims were even more precious: my son’s middle school. If I thought speaking to college students was daunting, the thought of pubescent teenagers kept me up at night, literally. So I brought reinforcements: my 15 year-old super star daughter, who, by the way, has given three of these talks over the years to her own classmates and Ryan’s too. I know: awesome kids run in our family.
Again, I was worried about how to address them without speaking down to them. Kids are way more sophisticated than we give them credit for. I decided I would start by getting them focused on the Acceptance part vs. Awareness and then move to a broad generalization about the disorder of autism. I kept it general because I wanted my son in the room and I didn’t want this to be about him.
Let’s just say I was super nervous, like red hives up your neck, wet armpit, nervous. Because when I walked in, there were parents there, and I hadn’t prepared for that. Maybe it was a good thing to have so many adult eyes on me because it made me conscious of not talking to the students like they were five.
When I asked first off how many had “heard” of autism, every single child raised their hand (and parent too). This didn’t surprise me, but only reinforced a) how smart they are, and b) how permeated the concept of autism has become. So, I drove home the point that all of them had heard of it, so we could move past the autism ‘awareness’ part into ‘acceptance’. A lot of heads nodded and that was enough for me to move on.
I think this next part went well, mainly because they told me they liked it. I brought up five volunteers to explain the five senses and how sensory issues affect almost all autistic people. I had sand paper, slatted sunglasses, peppermint oil, coffee candy and a loud sound on my phone (and my lovely assistant was a big help too). I hoped to show them most people can process things like smells, tastes and sounds, without thinking about it, but to a person on the spectrum these can cause major problems. Especially if language is an issue, and that person on the spectrum can’t properly tell you they don’t like that smell, taste or sound. I think the reason this part was a win wasn’t just because it was a hands on display, but because nothing goes over better with teenagers than seeing their classmates wear funny glasses or smell a strange looking bottle.
So, speaking at schools is a no-brainer if my objective is to spread knowledge. I presumed that before I experienced these two presentations, but being there in person merely confirmed it. So, why do I write this today? No, not to brag (except on my kids), but to ask help. I want to do this more, but getting into schools is tough. I can find a message for everyone because there is a message for everyone. I need referrals or teachers or PTA’s to request me to come in. So put the word out-won’t you?
After all Autism affects 1 in 68 children. The more we focus on the younger generations the faster acceptance can really begin.