When people ask me how the presentation went in New York City and the first CUNY Neurodiversity Conference, I have to pause and really think what the person is asking.
Are they asking me how it went for my sakes, are they asking how the presentation was perceived, or do they actually want to know what went on during the conference. What is their perspective taking on this, how should I even answer…
Of course, I have acquaintances that are not even the slightest interested in autism or any other special challenges people face and just want to see what I did and how I did, but that is not what I want to share... This significant conference was so so much bigger than any of the usual conferences where presenters show their expertise. Sure, I had a little spiel on the neuroscience behind our methods and how we should stop suffering for any child in education and need to train our teachers better, but again, this conference was so much more meaningful.
After probably a good two hours of the ordinary boring ‘look how far we have come and how great we are’ word by word read presentation, finally there was a professor who actually impressed. She took the platform for about ten minutes and handed over the stage to students of hers.
Assistant Professor of Psychology @ CSI/The Graduate Center Director of Advanced Certificate Program in ASD @ CSI Co-chair of CUNY Unlimited Faculty Committee called her students on the spectrum up and had them take over the presentation.
It was absolutely outstanding and exactly the point why we were there! They presented more professional than a lot of the PhD folks and certainly made a much better point to support and present their learning efforts.
The humbling experience was: These students accomplished, probably passed societal expectations, to have rigorous goals and work toward these goals, reaching for the stars and surpassing them. They were true inspirations to never ever give up on anybody you teach or help grow.
One statement that stood out was from one of the students on the spectrum when ask to give a word of advice to anybody working with children with a diagnosis of autism, he stated, “Don’t ever give up on us!”
That brought tears to my eyes, and I envisioned all the students that had passed through my classrooms over the years. I have certainly tried my best to do them justice, but every year I learn more and get better at how to differentiate and truly integrate- my early students certainly missed out, and I want to improve that.
I want to spread the knowledge, the creativity that can help these student grow to their full potential, unlock the blockage to a brilliant brain and personality. Why would we want to try so hard to change them instead of embracing what is right in front of us and can make the experience for every single member in society so much richer? As I read somewhere, maybe someday autism will simply be yet another ‘quirky’ character trait people accept and appreciate.
At the end of the conference there were seven college students on the spectrum commenting on questions. They discussed their social life in college, mentorship that got them through the beginning stages, but the most fascinating discussion was their accomplishments and dreams.
There was talk of double majors, a masters in psychology, a student who developed virtual reality sets to rebuild catacombs to allow for history research and experience. After not being accepted to a historical tour program, he kept self advocating and standing up for himself, until they eventually allowed him to give tours anyway...stunning, fascinating, and truly surpassing many people’s expectations of what autistic young adults could do.
I remembered watching a commercial of a car wash company ‘feeling good about themselves’ for hiring young adults on the spectrum- at that time I thought- wow, what a great opportunity...I think differently now- what if someone would have payed more attention to the needs of the individual and unlocked more doors, would this individual go further than ‘the lovely charitable car wash’? Could this individual be the genius who comes up with a cure for cancer- what might we be missing?
It still disappointed me that even with high qualification there was a lot of unemployment for young adults on the spectrum. Is it ignorance? Is it fear?
Interestingly enough, after my presentation, a mom hunted me down to have a chance to express her gratitude about the difference we made with our presentation. It was very heartwarming and unbelievable that we actually had such an impact. In addition, she was on a mission to educate prospective employers about autism. What a great mission and hopefully she will succeed to develop awareness and more open mindedness.
The brilliance that comes with some of these amazing young people is absolutely outstanding and well underappreciated. Over all, it was a very hopeful conference with a lot of areas to grow.
These kind of conferences should be in the News, hugely promoted and nationwide. We are moving in the right direction but by far not fast enough and colleges, well, society lagging far behind. But let’s focus on the hope for our students, children, young adults for all the opportunities that are already out there. Do your research and do not take ‘no’ for an answer!