Friday, February 5, 2010

International Autism Conference

"While we try to teach our children all about life,
our children teach us what life is all about."
- Angela Schwindt

The first international conference for autism held in the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), Manila, Philippines from February 3-5, 2010 was a resounding success that shattered the silence surrounding autism. It was such an honor to be part of the three-day series of plenaries and symposia by respected experts collaborating to give further light to the mystery of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The conference itself [as a whole] was very systematic and well planned for. The organizing committee's truly Pinoy approach was inspiring: name tags were placed in woven mat holders, staff members wore the IAC black t-shirt with a malong to match, and the conference kit was a canvas bag with the IAC insignia. The ushers and usherettes, hands down, were one of the most hospitable and pleasant people I have ever encountered. Furthermore, it was heart-warming to see the guest speakers wearing the Barong Tagalog (for the men) and the Kimona (for the women) on opening day.

The opening ceremony of the International Autism Conference (IAC) was graced by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the First Gentleman, Attorney Jose Miguel Arroyo, who presented an overall scenario of the current state of autism awareness efforts and diagnosis-intervention assistance being provided in the Philippines.

I especially appreciated the multidisciplinary perspective on autism that the conference provided for its participants. In spite of the various fields of expertise of each keynote speaker, all of them emphasized the importance of explaining and understanding autism holistically. It was very evident in how each leading expert referred to the other presenting lecturers' works or researches. Everyone is part of the solution.

As I was sitting on one of the more comfortable chairs at the upper level of the summit hall, for a moment, I looked back at my college days. I had no idea that I will find myself immersed in the world of autism as a teacher/therapist a year ago.

In 2004, the Psychology program that I enrolled in generally introduced me to three big fields namely Industrial, Educational and Clinical Psychology, which gave me a good overview of how flexible Psychology is as a field of study. After graduation, I took a year off to take a breather from my workaholic lifestyle and to reset priorities and set new goals. However, until now, I am still quite unsure which particular field I want to specialize in although I have pretty much put the Industrial field at the bottom of my list. I originally envisioned myself becoming a medical doctor but certain paths have led me to where I am now. I know doors of opportunities are still open, including the one for medical school, but I must go through the door to find out what lies ahead before they close.

IAC plenary sessions included the following:

  • History, Screening, Assessment, and Diagnosis
  • Medical and Co-morbid features of Autism
  • Early Identification of Autism
  • Diagnosis and Evidence-based Treatment of Adolescents and Adults with Autism
  • The Genetics of Autism
  • The Neurobiology of Autism
  • The Epidemiology of ASIAN Autism
  • Social and Neurocognitive Development in Autism
  • Language of Autism
  • Behavioral Management of Autism Across Settings
  • Social Skills Training in Autism
  • Interactive Discussion with Autism Speaks
Listening to the lecturers present data and research findings on these various topics gave me a renewed enthusiasm for subjects I found joy in studying like Neuroanatomy, Abnormal Psychology, Clinical Psychology, Human Exceptionality, and Experimental Psychology. In many ways, for me personally, the conference has helped me find a definite sense of direction again.

In my mind, I became sure that where I am is where I need and want to be. We go where we are needed the most.

On the very same stage where different important people stood to deliver their speeches during the first day of the conference, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to give the Address of Petition speech in behalf of the UST College of Science graduating batch of 2008. I faced parents, members of the UST administration, and faculty members of the College of Science as well. As I remember the moment, I know God has a purpose why things happened the way they did and why things are happening the way they are. With God's help, I believe I will succeed in whatever I wish to pursue. Nobody said the way to making a difference would be easy but it is not impossible.

"We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love."
- Mother Teresa

As a novice professional in the field of autism, I signed up for certain symposia that will help me establish a clearer foundation with regards to my work as a teacher/therapist in early intervention. I attended the symposium on "Designing and Carrying Out Early Intervention for 0-4 year olds" by Dr. Laura Schreibman and Dr. Sally Rogers and "Positive Behavior Management of School Age Children with ASD in the Classroom" by Dr. Laura Schreibman, which were truly informative lectures that offered me a lot of insights on how to deal with very young children with special needs.

My co-teachers from work and I approached Dr. Schreibman during one of the breaks and she was simply a delight to talk to. She said she wanted to visit the Philippines again and that she finds the country beautiful. :)

I also participated in the symposium on "Play and Imagination in Children with Autism: Guiding Social Experiences with Peers" by Dr. Pamela Wolfberg, one of the most passionate speakers in the conference. Her talk was very enlightening; it was a great reminder of the universal truth that children with autism are first and foremost CHILDREN. They need be cared for and loved just like any other child and that they also learn about world through play the way all of us did when we were kids.

For the culmination of the International Autism Conference plenary sessions, Mr. Michael Rosanoff, together with Dr. Andy Shih and Ms. Dana Marnane, presented the Global Autism Public Health Initiative. The interactive discussion was facilitated by the Chairman Emeritus of the Autism Society of the Philippines (ASP), Dang Koe. It was a wonderful venue where pressing concerns regarding autism in the Philippines were brought out in the open.

"Autism Speaks is the world’s largest autism science and advocacy organization. Its mission is to fund research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocate for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Officially designated a non-governmental organization (NGO) associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), the first and only such organization devoted to autism, Autism Speaks is able to reach a global audience in its efforts to promote the dignity, equal rights, social progress and better standards of life for individuals with autism. In 2008, Autism Speaks launched the Global Autism Public Health Initiative (GAPH), an ambitious international advocacy effort designed to help countries around the world: (1) enhance public and professional awareness of autism; (2) facilitate research, including research that informs public health policy (e.g. autism prevalence); and (3) build capacity for autism services, especially in early detection and intervention. Through GAPH, Autism Speaks has already established partnerships with local governments, professionals, and parents in Central and South America, the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe, South Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Rim. The International Autism Conference (IAC) will serve as the launching pad for GAPH-Philippines, calling attention to the unmet needs of the Filipino autism community and developing a strategic, evidence-based approach to improving the lives of all those affected by autism in the country."

I am truly honored to have been a participant in the International Autism Conference. It was an experience I'll always remember. Making myself more equipped in order to help children with autism reach their highest potentials is one way I can give back. Letting the world know that we can all be part of a solution is one way I can pay it forward.

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