Oakland hosts its first Autism Summit

By Kevin Graham

Oakland University held its inaugural Autism Summit Feb. 21, bringing together various parties to deal with issues related to the care and independence of those with autism and to discuss a way forward.

Autism refers to a spectrum of neurological disorders affecting the development of social and communication skills of children in their first three years, according to the U. S. National Library of Medicine.

One in 88 children have a disorder on the spectrum, according to the advocacy and awareness group Autism Speaks.

The issues

Louis Gallien, dean of the School of Education and Human Services, said the goal of the summit was to bring as many people together as possible to talk about the issues.

“The goals were to get the various stakeholders across the state together in one place to discuss, where the gaps are in service to people who are care providers for people across the spectrum, and then obviously people who are across the spectrum themselves,” he said.

Gallien said autistic people struggle with things a neurotypical person would take for granted.

“I didn’t even think about what a hard process it would be to go to the dentist for people across the spectrum who have a hard time sitting still or a hard time maintaining their head in one position or dealing with all the machinery and all the needles,” Gallien said.

Kathy Sweeney, director of the OU Center for Autism Research, Education and Support, said one of the big challenges is fostering independence.

“It’s an independent socialization life skill, understanding how to live by yourself or at least being able to know how to make a meal or how to function on your own or with minimal help,” she said.

Basic needs like housing and employment need to be looked at as well.

Gallien said a common concern among parents and guardians of children with autism is the uncertainty of the future.

“I think the other big concern that parents have is ‘what if our children outlive us and we’re not there anymore’” he said. “How do we feel okay about their future if they’re not talking, if they don’t have a job or if we don’t have relatives that would be willing to take them on.”

Gallien said because the spectrum of disorders is so wide — ranging from high- functioning to nonverbal — a treatment that works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else.

Climbing the summit

Gallien said they would be meeting next week to discuss an action plan, and that the summit highlighted questions for him as an educator.

On the jobs front, he said it was important to identify places that are open to employing people affected by autism.

Sweeney said OUCARES focuses on three key areas in trying to improve the quality of life of those that they see at the center — socialization, independence and physical and mental well-being.

In terms of socialization, it’s important to have them participate in activities that involve interaction and teamwork.

“It’s really trying to get that person to increase the number of friends they have and to be able to partake in a friend relationship,” she said.

Independence and well-being deal with giving the person basic skills to go through everyday life.

“It’s really working with individuals in order for them to be able to make their decisions and be able to work in a situation where they not only are told what they are going to be doing, but they can identify what they like and why they want to do it,” she said.

Sweeney said OU provided unique opportunities for the local autistic community.

“We’re unique in the state of Michigan and I hope that our students and faculty really take pride in us being leaders in trying to make the world a little better for individuals with autism,” she said.