Autism :: Families with autistic children connect with researchers, health care professionals

Starting out in 1998 with 300 attendees, the National Autism Conference at Penn State is one of the largest conferences of its kind — not just in the nation, but globally, attracting a diverse audience, including educational and behavioral health professionals, as well as those on the autistic spectrum (AS) and their family members.

Starting out in 1998 with 300 attendees, the National Autism Conference at Penn State is one of the largest conferences of its kind — not just in the nation, but globally, attracting a diverse audience, including educational and behavioral health professionals, as well as those on the autistic spectrum (AS) and their family members.

Last year more than 500 of the nearly 2,300 attendees were family members of those living with autism. Along with researchers, doctors and teachers, families are on a never-ending quest for answers to the latest rumors, to information on the latest findings, to emotional support. This summer, from July 30 through Aug. 3, the 2007 National Autism Conference is expected to again draw more than 2,000 people to The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel at Penn State’s University Park campus. Last year attendees came from all over the United States and abroad, including California, Texas and Sweden.

For Janet Schaufler of Warriors Mark, whose 16-year-old son is on the autistic spectrum, the conference is a way to get the latest knowledge and information she can use at home, as well as keep up to date professionally and network with colleagues in her role as a school psychologist with the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District. “I have been attending the conference for many years to gain professional knowledge, especially in the area of applied behavior analysis,” Schaufler said. “This year, I’m going as a parent. I like the offerings on social skills.” She also will be there to see her son Russell talk about his experiences growing up with AS as part of a panel discussion.

Russell Schaufler has been attending the conference with his parents for several years. Last year, he heard keynote speaker Scott Robertson, who also is on the spectrum, and was thrilled “to meet someone like me,” Janet Schaufler said. “We met Scott, and he has become a friend and mentor to our son,” she added. Robertson is speaking again on July 30.

Pamela Wolfe, associate professor of special education and academic program director of Penn State’s Professional Development Certificate Program in Autism, remarked that the field of autism is rapidly and continually changing and that the conference is an opportunity for parents and professionals to hear from national experts on research findings and new treatments. “It is rare for so many people to be gathered with the same shared focus of helping individuals with autism at one time, in one place. The conference lets parents learn about cutting-edge research. Parents also have the opportunity to connect with other families who might share similar experiences. I’ve spoken with many parents who look forward to the conference to hear about a variety of issues, including the impact of autism on the family and siblings and other issues that have a direct effect on their lives.”

Autism affects an estimated one in 150 children in America today, making the condition more common than childhood cancer, cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis combined for as many as 1.5 million Americans. Called Autism Spectrum Disorders, this neurobiological condition causes impairment in thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others.

To help family members get the most out of attending the National Autism Conference, the Pennsylvania Department of Education provides free day care during the conference, through its Children’s Institute, for 100 children (ages 2 to 21) with autism and their siblings. The Children’s Institute is an on-site, structured and fun environment for these children. In addition, the conference registration fee is kept low ($25 per person) for family members or individuals with autism.

Public awareness of autism has grown dramatically in recent years, as diagnoses have increased at what some medical professionals call epidemic levels. In addition, a recent flurry of stories in the media has helped make autism a focus of national consciousness.

In Pennsylvania, where diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorders have increased by more than 2,000 percent during the last 15 years, the recently approved state budget includes $10 million for autism research. Gov. Ed. Rendell also is encouraging the legislature to pass a measure requiring health insurance companies in the state to cover autism. Action is pending. A new program launched earlier this year by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare has awarded one-time mini-grants of up to $500 to nearly 1,200 families. The grants can be used for child care, summer camps and home modifications.

As a result of the increase in autism, more professionals and family members than ever before are seeking the latest information about the condition. To meet these needs, this year’s conference includes topics such as:

— Updates on Pennsylvania’s efforts to provide support and services to individuals living with autism, and their families;

— Understanding sensory disorder and recent research in Autism Spectrum Disorders;

— New developments in assessment; and

— Autism and the struggles of adolescence.

More than 100 speakers, including many internationally respected leaders, will present at the conference, sharing the latest research about autism and related issues. Speakers include renowned medical professionals, educators, behavior analysts and parents of autistic children.

Scott Robertson, a 26-year-old Penn State doctoral degree student in information sciences and technology living with Asperger’s syndrome, will deliver the keynote address “Living on the Autism Spectrum: Experiences, Challenges and Growth.” Robertson said, “I greatly enjoy having the opportunity to share my thoughts and beliefs with people in the audience and hear about their own experiences and perspectives on adult living and autism.”

Robertson’s keynote is one of nine sessions being offered for free via a live Webcast through Penn State Public Broadcasting. A computer with Internet access and a Windows Media Player 9 or above is required to view the live Webcast. The Webcast schedule and access to download Windows Media Player 9 is available at http://pspb.org/live/autism/ online.

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