Parents and pros exchange views during ‘Autism in the Early Years’ symposium

Province-wide online event explored multiple aspects of the spectrum disorder

After several months and countless hours of preparation by an organizing committee assisted by a team of dedicated volunteers, more than 100 parents and professionals with an interest in autism had the opportunity recently to explore a wide range of autism-related topics during the Autism in the Early Years symposium.

Across the province

The province-wide online event on March 21-22 featured keynote presentations, a panel on autism service navigation across Quebec, and sessions on communication support at home, as well as on parent training, empowerment and other issues.

Co-hosted by the Laval-based Youth and Parents Agape Association with the Giant Steps School in Montreal, with financial support from the Community Health & Social Services Network (CHSSN) and the Public Health Agency of Canada, the symposium drew caregivers, speakers, presenters, panelists and artists who contributed information, opinions and ideas.

A complex condition

Autism [or autism spectrum disorder (ASD)] is a complex neurological condition that affects individuals in various ways, impacting their social interactions, communication skills and behaviors. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that no two individuals with autism are exactly alike. Each person brings their own unique strengths, challenges and perspectives.

For many of those attending, autism was not just a topic to be discussed. It is also very much a part of their daily lives. Whether as parents, caregivers, educators or as professionals working in the field, they feel the importance of raising awareness, promoting understanding and providing support for individuals with autism and their families.

Autism community united

Throughout the symposium, they were offered the opportunity to explore a wide range of topics related to autism. But perhaps most importantly, they came together as a community – united in commitment to advocate for acceptance, inclusion and the empowerment of individuals with autism.

“We can create a more inclusive and compassionate society for all,” said Kevin McLeod, executive-director of Agape which co-hosted the symposium along with Giant Steps School. (Screengrab: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

In opening remarks on day one, Agape executive-director Kevin McLeod said it was important to keep in mind the words of Temple Grandin, a renowned autism advocate and educator: “The world needs all kinds of minds.”

“By embracing diversity and celebrating the unique talents and perspectives of individuals with autism, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate society for all,” McLeod said, adding that the symposium’s exploration of autism should be approached “with open hearts and open minds.”

Symposium Day One

Day one began with a keynote presentation by Maureen Bennie, who founded the Autism Awareness Centre in 2003 in Calgary, to address what she saw as a gap in support, information, resources and advocacy for those struggling with autism spectrum disorders.

Steven Atme, who was diagnosed with autism at age four, closed the evening with a musical performance. A remarkable journey through music and advocacy has garnered him many accolades. His story was one of resilience, creativity and a commitment to encouraging others, with or without disabilities, to embrace their unique identities and pursue their dreams.

Day Two of symposium

On day two, Kelly Bron Johnson (an autistic and hearing-impaired self-advocate) spoke about some of the strengths of parenting through the lens of being autistic. It is an approach she believes anyone can learn, leading to parenting with acceptance and love and happier families.

Before a noon-time break, a panel of experts from the health, daycare, education and social services sectors discussed the autism services offered across the provinces. The session was moderated by Giant Steps director of innovation and special projects Seiun Thomas Henderson. The panelists were Dr. Emmett Francoeur, Dr. Lucyna Lach, Nick Katalifos and Sylvia Benkh.

Nick Katalifos, parent of an autistic child and a member of the Giant Steps School board, was on a panel of experts who discussed the availability of autism across the province. (Screengrab: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

World Health Organization

Also during the March 22 sessions, Dr. Mayada Elsabbagh spoke about the World Health Organization Caregiver Skills Training program in Canada, which aims to increase access to intervention for Canadian families, while simultaneously generating high quality evidence relevant for decision and policy makers.

Dr. Mariska Burger spoke on developing communication skills in autistic children. Dr. Keiko Shikako-Thomas discussed the Jooay App, a free mobile app made to help families, youth and professionals find adaptive and inclusive leisure activities.

And Anna Katalifos, a sibling and caregiver to an autistic young adult who is also a researcher, shared personal experiences and research-based insights into the sibling journey of caring for autistic youths and children.

Videos available online

Symposium organizers report they have received many requests for video links from people who want to watch or rewatch the presentations. At last word, the organizers were waiting for the videos from the production company and expected they would be available by April 15 at the latest (although hopefully earlier).

It would be important to mention that the recorded presentations will be accessible through the new virtual libraries at Agape Association in Laval and Giant Steps in Montreal. Should you have any other questions or concerns, you can contact Barbara Klein, administrative assistant and project coordinator at the Youth and Parents AGAPE Association Inc.