The speakers and vendors at the 6th Annual Rockland County Autism Symposium Wednesday at the Pearl River Hilton focused on diagnosis and treatment of the condition and methods of helping people with autism deal with the world around them.
Featured speaker Dr. Temple Grandin, Ph.D. is able to address those subjects, but she is also able to give a glimpse into the mind of a person with autism.
In addition to her work Grandin as a doctor of animal science and a professor at Colorado State University, Grandin is one of the most high-profile autism advocates in the United States. She is also autistic herself.
Grandin is living evidence of one of the messages she stressed to the crowd Wednesday, that there is a very wide variety of forms of autism, all with different symptoms and treatments.
"It is a continuum," Grandin said. "Somebody who knows how to work with somebody on one end doesn't know how to work with the other end."
Grandin is very high-functioning, so she is able to give people a glimpse into some aspects of how the mind of a person with autism works.
She also focused a great deal on ways to help people with autism find ways to function in the world. She said that she sees far too many people with the condition who are not pushed hard enough to improve their ability to interact with others and function on their own.
"There is too much emphasis on the deficit and not enough on building the strengths," Grandin said.
For example, Grandin is a visual learner. Abstract concepts are nearly impossible for her. She said that she actually sees the world in pictures. But she has found ways to work with that.
She said finding work is important, though it can be a challenge because social issues are a part of autism. For Grandin, that means selling the work, not the person.
Other speakers also focused on helping people with autism deal with the world around them. Dr. Peter Gerhart, Director of the McCarton Upper School, focused on sexuality instruction. He stressed that ignoring the topic when educating people with autism can be dangerous, saying it is better to offer specific instructions on what is appropriate and what is not.
He also stressed the importance of educating the public about autism.
Early diagnosis is also an important part of helping children deal with autism. Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, a former special education teacher, spoke about new categorizations that should be available in 2013 that might help diagnose children at a younger age.
She also spoke of the importance of government helping people with special needs.
"In recognition of the increasing number of children and adults who are diagnosed with autism and autism spectrum disorders, we must address this growing healthcare crisis with focused public policy efforts and meet the challenge by aggressively moving forward to research, treat and address autism and autism-related disorders."
The symposium is sponsored by Joseph and Inna Needleman.
"Everything that happens today, including the free food, is a gift from MindWorks, the Needleman family charitable trust who created this event and keep it going," said Rockland County Legislator John Murphy in his opening remarks.
Other speakers included:
- Dr. Emanuel DiCicco-Bloom, M.D. on "The Next Autism Therapies: The Roles of Mouse Models"
- Gina Zecchin-Tirri, Board Certified Behavior Analyst on "Using Applied Behavior Analysis to Teach Life and Community Skills"
- Dr. Catherine Lord, Director of the Institute of Brain Development, NY-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University Medical Center on "Research and Hopes for the New Autism Center at White Plains."
There were also representatives of the Clarkstown Police Department/Project Lifesaver, a program that helps in the care for people with cognitive disabilities such as autism and Alzheimer's disease.
Project Lifesaver places radio transmitters on people who may wander from their homes, allowing their caregivers and local emergency agencies to find them more easily. For more information, go to the Project Lifesaver website www.projectlifesaver.org or call the Clarkstown Police Department's Project Lifesaver Program at (845) 639-5930.