Speaker giving a talk in conference hall.

6 Things We Learned at the Autism Society Conference


The Autism Society Conference is a safe place to be around people who genuinely want the best outcomes for autistic individuals at every stage of their lives. The people who organize it do a great job at being inclusive — all voices are welcome and everyone has an opportunity to be heard.

More autistic voices than ever were represented at this summer’s conference. Self-advocates took center stage to talk about their experiences and offer advice worth hearing and taking to heart.

Here are the six things that left us feeling hopeful and positive:

1. There’s a new definition of success.

Becca Lory is one you should follow whether you’re a self-advocate, parent or professional. She’s an emerging leader and powerful voice for the autism community. Becca energetically delivered the message that no one but you should define what it means to have a successful and happy life — not society, family, cultural norms or employer. Instead, she walked us through her process for achieving one’s best possible life.

2. Autism is an asset.

We have the power within ourselves to share our stories and guide people towards a better understanding of what it means to be autistic. In sharing his personal story, Jonathan Murphy said  he has been told by his employer and agent that his “autism is an asset.” It took him years to feel that way about himself. Now, he encourages every person on the spectrum to take pride in being different.

3. One size never fits all.

Conner Cummings, Lydia Wayman and Chloe Rothschild want you to know there isn’t one way to communicate, make friends and give a presentation! Through the internet, the three have become close friends and influential advocates. Though verbal, their speech can be unpredictable so they often type to communicate. They delivered an information-packed presentation in a style
that worked for each of them individually: Conner wrote a script and read it out loud; Chloe used a combination of speech, video and AAC devices; and Lydia pre-recorded her part since she couldn’t be there in person.

4. Autism is a competitive advantage.

Tom D’Eri is one of the co-founders of the Rising Tide Car Wash in Florida, a for-profit business based on the principle that “autism is a competitive advantage.” Tom and Michael Alessandri, Ph.D. walked the audience through the autism advantage roadmap for starting businesses that empower through gainful employment.

5. Make way for the wonder women on the spectrum.

The female side of autism was well represented at this year’s conference. The Autism Women’s Network’s anthology, “What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew,” won the Dr. Temple Grandin Award for Outstanding Literary Work of the Year.

One of our favorite sessions was with tiara-wearing Brigid Rankowski, Jennifer O’Toole and Maura O’Toole who talked about dual diagnosis mother-daughter relationships. These three wonder women shared their personal experiences, including the tragedies of misdiagnosis and being misunderstood to the triumphs of standing up, speaking out and living spectrum-in-pink!

6. We do have common ground.

John Elder Robison gave the closing keynote address and it had a profound impact on me. I love the autism community — its diversity and untapped, talented individuals ready to break out and claim their place in the world. But the autism community is clearly divided: some talk of cures, genetics and environmental factors and others speak of neurodiversity, accommodations and acceptance. Each viewpoint comes from one’s own personal experiences with autism.

John says we must stop the infighting because it really doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong. What matters most is that we all share one thing in common:

We all want a better quality of life for those on the autism spectrum.

John called on each of us to treat each other with respect and focus on that common ground. We need to rise up as a unified force, like those in the civil rights and gay rights movements, to demand equal treatment and a better tomorrow for those with autism.

At the end of his presentation, John challenged every self-advocate in the audience to own their roles as emerging leaders who will lead the charge towards change. They stood in solidarity with fists of strength in the air! What a powerful way to conclude the Autism Society Conference. We
pledge to do whatever we can to help their voices be heard.

A version of this post originally appeared on Geek Club Books autism community blog.

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Thinkstock photo by Kasto80.

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