On Thursday, May 28, amidst the breathtaking view in a space generously donated by Merrill Lynch, with sights including the Washington monument, Jefferson Memorial, the Pentagon and even the White House, the National Capital Area Chapter of Autism Speaks held its most intimate Transition Town Hall yet. The intimacy of this event created a conversational atmosphere, where families felt comfortable asking their questions and venting their concerns. Like the other Town Halls around the country over the past year, this event brought in a panel of experts, including a researcher, parents, an educator and a self-advocate; families of children getting ready to begin the transition process; educators supporting that transition; and young adults on the spectrum.
The event kicked off with a moving monologue by Owen Duffy, a self-advocate, who found his voice amidst the challenges associated with his autism diagnosis. He spoke about how to be your own advocate, and the importance of it, especially when pursuing post-high school goals. Owen’s story was not only inspiring, but created a sense of hope for the families in attendance and helped set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Moderator Glen Finland, author and Autism Speaks National Capital Area Board Member, opened the moderated panel discussion with a quote from Bob Marley – “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.” She then shared her own story about her son, David, and reminded the parents in the room how strong they all have been and will continue to be.
Panelist Molly Biehl, Senior Research Assistant for the Miliken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University, shared with attendees the recent findings of the Autism Transition Project, explaining that the project was intended to get the landscape of transition nationally, as well as the perspectives of school leaders and parents. They found that one of the largest misconceptions among the groups involved was thinking that all parties have varying viewpoints, when in fact, “what school leaders want is the same thing that parents want.”
This led the discussion into what that actually means and how to get all involved parties on the same page. Molly Whalen, Director of Development and Communications at Ivymount School and Programs, explained that even though “philosophically, every IEP meeting is focused on getting through that day, that week, that year,” parents and teachers alike must focus on the end goal, realizing that “it doesn’t matter when they get there, just that they get there.”
Executive Director of SchoolTalk, Inc., Leila Peterson, continued the conversation, adding on that “families have to fight harder and tap into more resources” to ensure the path to achieving that end goal is structured so that the individual can get there. One important piece of that path is self-advocacy, something the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) are working to teach to their students.
Ricki Perry, Special Education Teacher at Eastern Senior High School, spoke directly to the parents of all DCPS students in attendance, both current and former. She emphasized the importance of the child being able to express his or her disability, including understanding his or her interests, and suggested that the conversation should start in middle school. Additionally, she told the parents in attendance to use the student’s teachers stating, “I want to take on your stress while your child is my student…know that you’re not alone.”
After the moderated panel discussion ended, the open question and answer period began. Employment proved to be a common thread, which prompted a discussion on services available after high school to support employment. The attendees learned of Autism Speaks’ new initiative and job portal, The Spectrum Careers, as well as local resources available. This discussion also prompted the question of disclosure of the autism diagnosis to future employers, to which Owen replied, “you really should tell them that [you have a diagnosis].” Other panelists shared this sentiment, explaining that in order to receive the reasonable accommodations in a job that are available by law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers must know. As other topics were raised, including the concern about teaching life skills versus academics, the panelists and attendees engaged in conversation about how to best support our children and young adults through the transition process.
As the evening came to a close, attendees enjoyed one last view of the night sky over Washington D.C., leaving not only with resources to help continue the discussion about transition, but also additional knowledge on how to navigate the confusing journey of transition. They left knowing that together, as one autism community of parents, educators and advocates alike, our young adults with autism can achieve their goals – focusing less on how long it takes to get there, and more on how to utilize the tools and resources available to ensure that they get there.