Conference gives first-hand insight into autism


Published: Monday, April 8, 2013 at 10:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 8, 2013 at 10:09 p.m.

For 18-year-old Haley Moss, life can be like reading from a script.

Moss was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when she was 3 years old. Now as a freshman at the University of Florida, she stood in front of about 35 people and explained how having autism can be like reciting lines in a play.

As a child, Moss said her mother would teach her how to respond in social situations because many times people with autism do not pick up on social cues, nor can they respond as naturally as their peers.

Moss was one of eight speakers at TEAxUF, a conference last weekend put on by the University of Florida group Impact Autism.

TEAxUF is one of several events being put on during April, which is national autism awareness month. People can visit UF’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities website for a list of the events.

CARD is the sponsor for Impact Autism. Greg Valcante, director of CARD’s Gainesville center, said he hopes people who attended the events take away an appreciation for people with autism and their abilities as well as disabilities.

The conference drew a mix of people, from parents who have autistic children, people who work with children with disabilities and community members who wanted to lean more about the disorder.

Pam Lore, 41, attended the conference to support her friend Jennifer Garrity, 38, who has a 6-year-old autistic son.

Lore said she had to keep calling her husband and to tell him that she was staying longer because she wanted to learn more.

Garrity said the event was important for many parents who could use the insight into their autistic child’s life. For her, attending the conference was more than that.

“I need to get inspired again,” she said.

Other speakers at the conference included a woman who spoke about the challenges a mother faces with an autistic child, a professor who spoke about the neurobiology of self-injurious behavior in autism, a man who spoke about teaching disabled people urban farming, and a neuropsychologist who described dance therapy and how it can help autistic people.

Christine Stopka, UF’s Teacher of the Year for 2008, put on a jet pack made out of a cereal box, two cups and some duct tape during her talk. She was demonstrating easy-to-make toys that are safe and encourage children to be active.

Before Stopka’s speech, Consuelo Kreider, who works at UF’s department of Occupational Therapy, had told the crowd “explicitly spelling out the small steps” can help people with autism and other disorders learn how to better function in everyday situations.

William McCombie, a high-functioning autistic man, shared his story at the conference — something he said he could not have done six months ago.

He said joining Talking Gators, a UF toastmasters club, had given him the confidence to speak at the conference.

McCombie told the audience about his life. He had been cyberbullied in high school before cyberbullying was a term people used. He talked about getting his undergraduate degree at UF and getting his driver’s license three years ago. Even with the license, he said he still prefers his bike.

He said he doesn’t see his autism as a disorder, but as just being wired differently, which is what he hoped people took away from his speech.

Ashley Giddings, president of Impact Autism, said she had hoped for a larger turnout, but “you really just need that one person.”

“I hope the conversation we got started today continues,” she said.

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