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What I learned at the Salon De L'Autisme

10/24/2014 12:50 EDT | Updated 12/24/2014 05:59 EST

I loved the Salon de l'autisme (Autism Expo) that took place in Laval at the beginning of October. For the first time in a long while, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time with my new foster family.

There were information booths everywhere; about a hundred of them; designed to suit all tastes and needs. Nothing was left to chance, as Salon organizers thought of everything that could help the parent of a child diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

Along the way I met a number of interesting people, from inspired teachers to motivated parents. I chatted with nutrition specialists (as nutrition problems often affect those with an ASD), and sleep specialists (another problem we don't often talk about but that frequently affects children with an ASD), and a bunch of people who offer training on the best way to use an iPad and optimize it to be as educational a tool as possible. I met music therapists, heard of the benefits of art therapy and zootherapy, discovered all kinds of private services, hung out with the incredible dogs at the MIRA Foundation, and almost registered my son for lessons in horseback riding, karate, tennis, and yoga... all adapted of course! A number of specialized schools were also on hand to showcase their services, including Giant Steps at Peter Hall, and let's not forget the Gold Centre, which offers clinical services to preschool aged children, and support services to older children and adults. The goal of everything there was to simplify things for parents, who are always looking for more resources, I can't stress that enough...

Over the long afternoon I spent a lot of time talking to very qualified people who offered respite services, a priceless resource for exhausted parents. Some offered weekend breaks in the country, not too far from Montreal; while others were ready to take your child into their homes. All the options seemed possible, but at a cost. Elsewhere I discovered toys by FDMT, which are amazing sensory toys adapted to our children's needs, and will awaken their senses and distract them! I also discovered brilliant Quebec-made pictograms that were created by parents of autistic children, and designed to address all situations. The Idéo pictograms were my favourite find from the Expo: a portable set of pretty magnetic pictograms that won't get lost, thanks to their practical, clever design! In the full set you get pictograms (a must-have for the parent of an autistic child!) to go to the speech therapist, the occupational therapist, to pick apples, berries, or pumpkins, to explain routines for tooth brushing and bed time, pictograms to go to the park, visit grandparents, take the school bus, etc...

Of course the primary purpose of the Salon de l'autisme is to host conferences on topics of community interest. Practical conferences on every possible topic such as parental stress, sleep, iPad use, the Padovan method, the biomedical and integrative approach, Qi Gong massages, autism after school and first person accounts of life with Asperger's like Marie Josée Cordeau's, which was extremely enlightening for "neurotypicals" like me. Marie Josée taught us how she views the world and opened our eyes to her reality, which is one shared by so many people on the autism spectrum. Seeing her success in all she takes on (conferences, blogs, and books about social cues for people with Asperger's) and the admiration she garners from other people on the spectrum, I would say she is a true inspiration for everyone.

The Hidden Face and Public Face of ASD

To finish the recap of my experience I must talk about the captivating conference given by Brigitte Harrisson; a person with autism and a social worker (yes, they are compatible!); and Lise St Charles, both of whom are ASD consultants. A leader in the field, Mrs. Harrisson spent 2 hours presenting what she normally teaches over the course of several days: the results of research done by her work group.

Mrs. Harrisson spoke about the hidden face and the public face of autism, that is to say what we see and know about autism (a term that encompasses all ASDs) versus what people with autism feel, don't express, and goes undocumented.

She wanted to give her entire presentation in the dark, with only the light from the projector, admitting from the start that she wasn't comfortable in front of a crowd of a hundred people. With a great deal of humour and self-deprecation she explained to us how a person with autism functions. She even congratulated organizers Johanne Leduc and Sylvie Le Guerrier for choosing the Cosmodôme for the first expo saying, "There couldn't be a better place than this for us who always feel like aliens around you neurotypicals!"

After redefining the hierarchy of needs for autistic people, Mrs. Harrisson stressed that for her, as someone with Asperger's who is also a functioning adult, everything is different: the perception of the universe, the regulation of emotions, and the processing of information. According to her, "an autistic person who speaks well is still autistic. And an autistic person who is doing well is one who's willing to argue to get what they want!" she added, laughing.

Her message is very clear: when you are autistic, it is for life and this autistic identity must be respected. And when you spend all your time trying to regulate yourself to adapt to your environment, it doesn't leave a lot of energy for socializing and making friends. Mrs. Harrisson, like everyone I met during the Salon, supports the right to be different and to be accepted. For her and other people with ASD our world is a strange one, but she wants to take part in it; in her own way.

Above all, what I saw and felt at the Salon de l'autisme, was that same desire to connect to others, to be understood, and to be able to live together. Mrs. Harrisson ended her brilliant conference with an excellent quote: "What's worse than being autistic is not being allowed to be." I couldn't have said it better myself.

You can read the original of this post on Miriam Foundation website