Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the XI Autism-Europe International Congress, a prestigious event which took place in Edinburgh. Specialists researching autism met up with members of the various national and global organisations that support those with autism and – most importantly – with parents and autists themselves.
The conference, entitled ‘Happy, Healthy and Empowered’, actively encouraged the attendance of those with the condition and provided clear signage, specific registration points and badging to help everyone else know the best way to make each of these delegates feel comfortable. For example, people who welcomed discussion chose badges saying ‘Interact’ and those who preferred to be left alone were able to choose a badge that made this equally clear.
There were numerous interesting presentations but – with such complex information and tight time schedules – I found the poster exhibition of research findings and the commercial exhibitors more accessible. Fortunately we live in an era where there are good funding streams to support further research into possible causes of autism, the incidence of additional health problems and the impact of different interventions.
Daily activities as fundamental as eating are difficult for those with autism and research shows there are no simple answers. While many autists have quite extreme dietary likes and dislikes, there does not seem to be a discernible pattern which would lead to a really helpful answer such as ‘avoid hard foods’ or ‘everyone with autism is allergic to gluten’. For those of you without regular contact with someone with the condition, imagine living through the weaning stage that you may have experienced with your own toddler. Then imagine how it would be if that stage went on pretty much for life and the impact that would have on your social life and family life.
Among the commercial exhibitors, there were some very interesting applications of new technology. A Dutch start-up company has developed an app that allows the autist to download and check off the different activities in their daily schedule. A small Norwegian company was using tablet technology to compile a personal visual dictionary that could build and speak sentences, enabling alternative communication.
There was a lot of interest from delegates in ASDAN and our products – particularly our Focus and Raising Aspirations resources, which were available for parents to buy at the event. The idea of providing structure to maintain and support learning in school or college for autists was praised by both parents and professional educators, who described it as being the missing piece of the jigsaw.
It wasn’t until day two of the conference that I realised to my amusement that many of the visitors to the stall I was running thought that the ‘ASD’ at the start of ASDAN stood for autism spectrum disorder. While we cater for the learning needs of those with autism, I pointed out that the actual name – Award Scheme Development [and Accreditation Network] – is rather different!