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SCSU autism conference in New Haven focuses on transition to adulthood

New Haven Register - 3/27/2017

March 27--NEW HAVEN -- For nearly three decades, an annual conference at Southern Connecticut State University has aimed to bridge the gap between parents and advocates of autistic children and educators.

"It makes sense for this conference to take place at Southern because of our teachers college," said Ruth Eren, director of the SCSU Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders.

The conference, cosponsored by the advocacy group Autism Services and Resources Connecticut and held recently, has aimed to make schools and communities more inclusive of children with autism, Eren said.

Beyond the state, however, Eren pointed to the announcement of an autistic puppet on the early TV program "Sesame Street" as evidence that awareness and understanding of autism spectrum disorders are growing.

Although an autistic character on "Sesame Street" might be a coup for raising awareness in general, the mid-march conference's focus was on preparing autistic students for a transition to adulthood.

Jim Loomis, director of adult services at Connecticut'sCenter for Children with Special Needs, moderated a panel discussion of five adults on the spectrum on how they've managed a transition into adulthood.

"Success is a tricky concept," he said.

For adults, defining success can often come down to owning material things or comparing oneself against others, he said.

"If you have autism, the process becomes even trickier, because society doesn't always make room or doesn't always understand," Loomis said. "Success for the folks I work with usually means independence. Independence is a key criterium."

Jed Baker, director of the Social Skills Training Project and the conference's keynote speaker, said there are many challenges for autistic adults, although colleges have begun to embrace individuals with autism.

"At any age you can intervene, even for adults and the elderly, you can change brain patterns," he said.

Rebecca Dickinson, one of the panelists and a 12-year employee at the SCSU bookstore, said she has motivated herself to keep from quitting when things get difficult by repeating, "I think I can."

Dickinson said any teacher can help an autistic student by refusing to give up on them.

"It could be a teacher's voice that teaches others not to prejudge a student, and that voice could get them services and an (individualized education plan,)" she said. "I wasn't challenged enough, which is why I acted out, in retrospect."

For the parents in the room, Dickinson recommended a less politically loaded version of the Department of Homeland Security's slogan: if you see something, say something.

"Your voice might be the only one the child has on his or her side," she said.

Dickinson said she wants to pursue a career change as a chaplain for either prisons or nursing homes.

"What guided me towards that is I've always envisioned myself helping others; being compassionate to others; being kind, generous and loving," she said. "I will always bring that sense of optimism and compassion into my future career endeavors as a nursing home chaplain or as a prison chaplain, or even a director of religious education for a church. They are often overlooked populations, and also one tends to be shunned at the same time as overlooked or ostracized or alienated from their peers."

Brandon Grody, a panelist, said working for a ride-sharing company has helped him to socialize with other people as an adult.

"This is just the next step in my career," he said. "I enjoy driving and I might as well drive and make some good money and interact with people."

Grody said the biggest advocate he had growing up was a special education teacher who recognized the signs of his Asperger's syndrome and helped take him from lagging behind to one of the top academic performers in school. One of the most important things someone can do for him, he said, is to acknowledge him and say hello, for the sheer reason that it makes him feel noticed.

Panelist Kevin Daly, a grandfather of two and a school-based special education associate and parent advocate, said he's come to believe over his 18-year career that schools have never been better equipped to deal with students with autism.

"If you have to have a kid with autism, this is a good time to have one," he joked.

His biggest childhood advocate, he said, was his sister, who "took me seriously at a time when no one else took me seriously as a child." He credited her early guidance with helping him in social situations and her later guidance with providing him a "source of knowledge" as a parent.

Although being on the spectrum presents challenges, he said, he believes the only possible way to fail is to quit.

"Teachers are going to have kids in their class with autism pretty much all the time, and they may act like loners with no interest in their peers, but the fact is many kids are dying to have friends and relationships and just don't know how to do it," he said.

Ryan Senft works as a care coordinator, helping families with autism, and said disclosing his diagnosis has given families hope that their children can find independence and success as adults. He said that parents should note that, no matter when they receive a diagnosis for their child, that child won't always be the same.

Panelist Keith Borkowski said he is gainfully employed, and the hardest part of his day is "looking busy," something Loomis noted was a common struggle for all workers.

Borkowski said many obstacles have made him feel like quitting, but he has convinced himself that persisting and "pushing to get the job done" makes him a better person.

He said it was largely thanks to his parents that he learned to drive, mostly because of their insistence upon his own independence.

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(c)2017 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

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