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Saturday, March 17, 2012

What a treat spending the day at the Future Horizons Autism& Asperger’s syndrome conference. There was a bit of a collective sigh when we learned that due to travel glitches Temple Grandin would be arriving late and not speaking until 3:00. But being the professional she is, she was graciously signing books and posing for fan photos in a cheery orange blouse by 11:00.
Meanwhile, writer, actress and mother of the most well-known individual with autism in the world-Eustacia Cutler shared her story, insights and dreams. The story begins with 20 year old Eustacia raising a toddler who was averse to touch and did not speak. How can she be a mother if the baby didn't seem to know who her mother was? So begins the journey of autism changing the entire family identity. Eustacia describes “theory of mind” as a precious gift not to be taken for granted since HER daughter didn’t know how to point to an Oreo cookie.

I love Ms. Cutler’s use of metaphors as she built her daughter’s life one Lego piece at a time until a structure was created- a structure which although recognizable is never quite the real thing. The young mother practices Bach on the piano as her daughter hums and crumples paper nearby. They are in their separate worlds despite her attempts to engage her pretty baby, but the baby continues humming. She hums Bach. Don't we  all find that subtle connection at the most unexpected times?
The beauty of Eustacia Cutlers speech and writings is that she wants to help today’s parents of children with autism to avoid the pitfalls of misinformed doctors, the father’s shame and society’s reluctance to spend money so that families of all socioeconomic classes receive the services that can help their children's lives achieve meaning. These services might be family counseling, career training, social skills training, speech therapy, art or drama classes. Temple Grandin’s mother was bold, educated, resourceful and wealthy and could give her daughter the benefit of a private education. These helped make Temple Grandin the success she is today. Don’t all children deserve these opportunities? I clearly sat amidst an audience that shared these values…….

Paula Aquilla-occupational therapist and co-author of Building Bridges Through Sensory Integration spoke about our sensory systems, neuroplasticity, processing disorders, anxiety and the benefits of a sensory diet. I am sure that this lecture was hugely informative for parents and educators. As a seasoned occupational therapist myself I focused on the many excellent analogies used to simplify concepts. For example:

  • Kids who toe walk are seeking extra proprioceptive input. Compare touch pressure when pressing your fingers into your arm vs. pressing your palm onto the arm. In the same way, the smaller surface areas of the toes receives greater sensory input than when using the flat foot.
  • Hand flapping may serve the purpose of stimulating the peripheral field, helping to drown out the other visual sensations. At the same time, don't we all flap when excited and the more excited, the more we flap?
  • Smearing feces may serve to block out other smells…..then again, it may be something else...

The point of Paula’s many anecdotes is that parents, teachers and therapists need to be detectives and find out what is behind behaviors. Then they need to find strategies that work for the individual. One clever parent realized that her child hated the sound of hand driers. So she placed “out of order”signs on public bathroom doors to keep others out until her daughter finished. Another important point is communication between home and school because if , for example, the school administration does not know that the child has an extremely high threshold for pain and as a result is easily bruised or burned- the school might suspect abuse. Future conference attendees will appreciate Paula’s wisdom, wit and frequent movement breaks.   

 I missed the lunchtime speaker, Dr. Roya Ostovar, but you may learn about her work at her website: Dr. Ostovar is a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of The Center for Neurodevelopmental Services at McLean Hospital and Director of Neuropsychology Services at the Lurie Family Autism Center.  

As we digested our lunches and pinched our arms to stay alert-the audience was treated to a lively Hollywoodesque introduction to Temple Grandin’s star-studded career. Voila, Temple arrived with a bang and enthusiastically spoke for 90 minutes on her views including

  • How to adapt the environment to meet sensory needs and learning
  • Signs and interventions for visual processing problems
  • The importance of categorizing behavioral problems- are they biological or behavioral?

I have frequently read and heard Dr. Grandin speak about her dismay at changing values. When she (and I since I am only 7 years younger) was growing up television sit-coms taught positive values such as friendship, neighborhood moms looked out for one another’s kids, manners were expected and children played OUTSIDE! Dr. Grandin gave an example of modern day failing values seen on a magazine cover showing two mating airplanes. The heading reads-“Let’s Get it On”. You be the judge on this one- Regardless of your thoughts I am happy to report Dr. Grandin’s satisfying small act of defiance in leaving this magazine on board an airplane.  

 The day ended with the poignant question-If Einstein had been born into today’s world what type of education would he have been given.?Would this strange man with no socks and mismatched clothing, unkempt hair, late speech and odd manners been given opportunities to daydream or been stymied by bullies and standardized tests?  Society benefits when the Einsteins and Temple Grandins of the world are given ample opportunity to grow into who they are meant to be.

This is me standing at the Challenge Unlimited/Ironstone therapies booth.

If you are interested in attending a conference please visit Future Horizons and use code "Pedia" to get a 15% discount (books and conferences. ) 

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