NOW in its seventh year, the Cork Autism Conference, which takes place online on October 23, is entitled ‘Autism: Beyond Limits’. Organiser, Micheál Ó Mathúna, of Autism Cork, says the theme reflects the organisation’s aims of empowering parents, professionals and people living with autism to have a deeper understanding of the condition and gain practical approaches which best support autistic people to have a good quality of life.
This year’s keynote speaker is Dr Temple Grandin, the bestselling author of books including ‘The Autistic Brain,’ ‘Thinking in Pictures’ and ‘The Way I See It’. Dr Grandin was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and was inducted into the USA’s Women’s hall of fame. She is an inventor, scientist and professor of animal science.
“The conference is a forum for autistic people, parents and professionals to connect with others facing the same issues and to recognise that they are certainly not alone on their journey,” says Micheál.
He adds that it’s an opportunity to clarify areas of autism by asking questions that can’t be answered by reading a book, website or blog post.
Micheál says that “we would not be here today without my non-verbal autistic brother. I’ve learned a lot from him and I continue to do so. He’s one of my greatest teachers in autism.”
What Micheál learned from his brother is that “we’re always trying to get (autistic people) to fit into a system that doesn’t meet their needs. Autistic people don’t need to fit in. They need to be understood. We need to work with families for better outcomes. Autistic people need and deserve the same quality of life that we have.”
Services for people with autism in Cork could be improved.
“This is not a criticism of the people delivering the services as in my experience they are totally committed caring individuals, but like every other service, there are issues with access and individualised programmes.
“Integration and education remain key issues as well as improving people’s understanding of autism, with autism specific training needed to meet the individual needs of children and adults on the autism spectrum.”
Micheál doesn’t think there is enough understanding of autism in this country.
“One of this year’s speakers, Dr Stephen Shore, famously once said: ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. ‘ I think this is so true. Autism and autistic people are not a homogenous group and will not fit into a single solution. They present with different issues across a vast spectrum and this must be explored and accommodated.”
In what ways could the lives of autistic people, including children, be improved?
“Listening to them and their families and having access to services and programmes that suit them. Understanding that autistic people and their families are the experts and working with them to produce the best outcomes. We also need to look at their strengths and abilities rather than focus on the label, because they all have strengths and abilities.
“Services, support and interventions need to be tailored to each person’s individual needs across the spectrum. Essentially, it’s about effectively supporting them to create a good quality of life where they are happy and where it’s meaningful to them.”
The conference went online during pandemic. The level of interest in this type of delivery was such that people who had attended the conference in person prior to the pandemic, asked for the conference to continue online.
“Having it online makes it more accessible for people who don’t like large crowds, noisy places and are time limited because of family commitments. Also, attendees have access to the recordings which they can play back and learn from at their own pace.”
Micheál says that parents of autistic children may be looking for a better way to support their child.
“This year, you may have been struggling, as many parents have, with changes in your life and changes at school. You may feel that your child is ready to realise more of their potential. However, poor language understanding and distressed behaviours are impeding your parenting. You may search for techniques that actually work on the internet, with books and with other events. However, you may feel that you’re not getting that missing piece that really helps you in your parenting and supporting your child to progress.”
Challenges that parents may experience include their child’s inability to tell them what is going wrong and what they are feeling. You may want to know when to discipline your child and when to support them. Also, you may want to help your child deal with anxiety and sleep issues. Parents want to know how best to support their child’s needs for a calm, engaging and integrated experience. There is also the issue of dealing with a child’s self injurious behaviour and sensory pain seeking when in distress. Parents of children with autism need to give them support during everyday transitions.
There can be anxiety around routines. There is often a need to manage verbal outbursts and teaching a child to communicate in a way that works for both parent and child. Meltdown strategies are important as is coping with aggressive behaviour, both verbally and physically.
At the conference, families will learn practical strategies and interventions to support individuals in overcoming sensory-perceptual difficulties. They will learn why challenging or distressed behaviour occurs. Parents and guardians will be shown how to reduce their own stress and move away from a crisis. And they will learn how to know when miscommunication is the source of misunderstanding, conflict and distress - and what to do about it. There will be an opportunity to learn how inclusive environments support autistic children and adults to live well by minimising anxiety, stress and distress.
After attending the conference, parents will learn how to increase the quality of life for their autistic child as well as increase their own peace of mind and happiness. They will be shown how to solve daily problems that may occur. And their child’s independence, life skills and self-sufficiency will improve. Communication between parents and their child will get better. There will be an increase in opportunities for the child to lead a productive, stimulating and independent adult life. The conference aims to improve outcomes for the autistic child in areas such as nonverbal and verbal communication, behaviour management and parent-child engagement. Parents will be able to help their child to better understand and manage their emotions in various environments. They will be able to increase the social development of their child so they can interact with peers and build friendships.
What’s also important is the ability of parents to improve their own mental health by decreasing stress, depression, anxiety, anger and guilt.
The overriding goal is to increase the child’s chances to be the best version they can be in the world.
Other speakers at the conference include Dr Peter Vermeulen; occupational therapist and educator, Dr Kelly Mahler; neuro-diversity speaker and automotive data analyst, Michael Barton; world-renowned autism expert, Dr Brenda Smith Myles and psychologist and best-selling author, Dr Debra Moore. With such a level of expertise, the Cork Autism Online Conference promises to be lively, informative and stimulating.