Thursday, April 26, 2007

Autism and Advocacy

April is Autism Awareness Month, and before the month is over, I thought it would be appropriate to add another post on the topic here, to complement my earlier one.

As I mentioned in that first post, my son has been raising money for the Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community as an extension of his Bar Mitzvah Project for Congregation Adas Emuno, and you can read his essay on his Donation Page. But this fundraiser is only the most recent of his efforts as the sibling of a child with autism, and an advocate for autism. And that's why I decided to bring him with me to a conference on autism advocacy last October.

My colleague James T. Fisher, a professor of theology and Co-Director of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, and another father of an autistic child, not to mention an all-around great guy, organized the conference which was held at our Lincoln Center campus, and was entitled: Autism and Advocacy: A Conference of Witness and Hope. Jim asked me to introduce and moderate one of the sessions, which I was glad to do. At least some of the program is available via RealPlayer, and I will provide the links below. But first, some photos.

The President of Fordham University, the Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., was present to provide welcoming remarks, and here are a couple of photos taken before the conference began, where he is telling Benjamin that I work too hard.

If you can't wait, here's Joe's Welcome and Jim's Introduction.

The Opening Address was delivered by Timothy Shriver, nephew of President of John F. Kennedy, son of Sargent Shriver, brother of Maria Shriver, brother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and most importantly, founder of the Special Olympics. He gave a very inspiring speech, specifically urging young people to get involved in advocacy. So, afterwards, I brought Benjamin over to meet him, and to tell him that Benjamin was an example of exactly what he was talking about. So, here's a photo of us talking to Timothy Shriver. And what do you think Benjamin had to say to him? He said, "Is your brother-in-law a robot?" Shriver did a double-take before realizing that it was a reference to The Terminator, and gave a quick chuckle. He had already given the impression in his address that he wasn't one of Arnold's biggest fans.

The Morning Session,
Communities of Faith Engaging Autism, and the luncheon were uneventful, and then I was the Moderator for the Afternoon Session on The Varieties of Autism Advocacy. Jim Fisher asked me to begin the session by talking a little about the kinds of advocacy that my family has been involved in, so I made some relatively extemporaneous remarks. And I had told Benjamin that I was going to mention him as well, and ask him to talk for a couple of minutes about his Bar Mitzvah project. I should have told him to sit down until I called on him, but neglected to, so he hovered around me while I spoke, which was kind of comical. You can see it happen on the streaming video, but first let's look at some photos, starting with a couple of me all serious and dignified-like:

Now, let's pull back to get Benny into the picture:

And here's a couple more:

The photographer really caught some really great facial expressions, don't you think? Anyway, here are a few more:

And now, heeeere's Benny (and me, the proud Papa!):

Although he was a little bit tongue-tied at first, Benjamin had absolutely no fear or hesitation about addressing several hundred people!

So, now for the links. First, there's the page with the program and all of the links for streaming video:

THE VARIETIES OF AUTISM ADVOCACY is the specific link for my intro and Benny's remarks. This is followed by Bruce Mills.

The entire session is listed, but I'm not sure if all of the video is actually up there yet--Jim told me it will be eventually. The talk by Kassiane Alexandra Sibley on my session was especially controversial, as she is herself autistic, and argued very forcefully, and in a confrontational manner, that autism is not a disability and does not need to be cured, or treated. This lead to a very lively, and heated question and answer session that I had to moderate rather actively (good thing I have a lot of experience with this sort of thing), as Sibley and some other attendees who are also high-functioning individuals with autism represented a position antagonistic to that of the parents of children with autism who were present. You can hear some of that at the end of her talk (although unfortunately the audience members were not picked up by the microphone so well).

My session was followed by another on CATHOLIC EDUCATION AND THE SPECTRUM and then a CLOSING REFLECTION by Jim's wife, Kristina Chew, who is an Assistant Professor in Classics at Saint Peter's College (like Fordham, a Jesuit institution) in Jersey City. Kristina has a blog of her own that's well known in the autism community--Autismland.

Anyway, another page provides a list of the participants, along with brief bios:

And here's a report on the conference published in Inside Fordham (which includes a couple of quotes from me):

Anyway, the conference was very well-attended, several hundred people were present, and the event was very well-received. A great success for Jim Fisher, and Kristina who also had much to do with organizing the event. Jim told me he hopes to hold more events on autism in the future, and he certainly has my support.

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