Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thoughts on My First Workshop Presentation

Last month, from October 9-11, I attended and presented a workshop at Autism New Jersey's annual conference in Atlantic City. I have a lot of thoughts on how the presentation went, and so I thought I'd share them here.

Let me preface this by saying that the presentation would not have happened at all had it not been for Dr. Lynda Geller. ANJ initially rejected my presentation proposal, but I was able to get the Executive Director, Linda Meyer (who was also one of my professors last semester) to reconsider, provided I could bring someone else on board who had a bit more in the way of credentials and expertise. Lynda has both of those in spades, and I am and always will be eternally grateful to her for agreeing to present with me.

Our presentation was titled, "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow: Strategies for Transitioning Students with Asperger's Disorder to a College Setting." It's probably fairly obvious, but I am the one who came up with the workshop name, since it has a Monkees song title in it. I'm just glad Lynda had enough of a sense of humor and graciousness to go along with it.

When I submitted the workshop proposal way back in February, I had intended myself to be the sole presenter. When Lynda came on board, I knew things were going to be different, for a number of reasons. I'd never presented a workshop before, for one, and I'd never done any sort of presentation in concert with another professional. It's always been me up until now...the Amy Gravino show, if you will, speaking on panels and doing a few keynotes. A co-presentation was a very new thing for me, and so I did not know what to expect.

It seemed like we did not really collaborate on the presentation at all, at least up until the last week before the conference. Lynda's incredibly busy schedule made it difficult reach her by phone or e-mail, and as the date of the conference grew nearer, my anxiety (understandably) heightened. I knew she would be absolutely good to go no matter what, but, while I've done tons of presentations on my own, this was the first with someone else, and I felt like it would be helpful to me if knew what she had planned and where I came in.

Had I been the sole presenter, I certainly would have designed my own Powerpoint presentation months ago. Lynda, however, having done a presentation of her own at countless conferences, brought a Powerpoint with her, so that was helpful in solving that issue, as I didn't have to worry about creating my own. The only problem was that I felt a bit out of place because it was she who presented for the bulk of the workshop. My contribution ended up being around 20 to 25 minutes' worth of personal anecdotes, as a means of supplementing the Powerpoint. I didn't mind doing this, although all I had to work from were a few notes hastily scribbled onto a wrinkled piece of paper, but it just wasn't exactly what I'd dreamed of when I thought of what my first workshop would be like.

Another issue is that we only had eight people in attendance at our workshop. Two were my parents, and another was my thesis chair. I know he could have gone to any other workshop, but he was kind enough to come to mine, and it meant a lot to me. As Lynda and I were setting up, I had asked the Autism New Jersey volunteer how many people signed up. "Fifteen," she said. I was disheartened by this; even more so when only eight showed up.

Part of the reason perhaps why the turnout was so low was that it was the last workshop of the day. Many people become exhausted by then, after a full day of conferencing, and so they just take off. Given that the location of this conference was Atlantic City, people have even more reason to leave early. Still, it bothered me. Almost all of the workshops that I attended at the conference dealt with issues faced by adults on the spectrum...and all of them had low numbers of attendees.

I attended a workshop on Saturday that was somewhat similar to mine, as it was about transitioning students with autism spectrum disorders from high school to college. The man who presented it was named Vincent Varrassi, and he used to work at Fairleigh Dickinson University, but now practices privately. I remembered him because I had e-mailed him some months ago about college coaching for people with Asperger's, and he provided some very thoughtful and helpful advice in his response.

I was, therefore, delighted when I discovered that he'd be presenting a workshop at the conference. He'd brought with him two young men with Asperger's with whom he works as clients. They chimed in periodically with anecdotal stories to supplement Mr. Varrassi's Powerpoint. The number of attendees there was even smaller than in my workshop, but in this case, the intimate group allowed for a great back-and-forth dialogue between all of us. In particular, I found myself chiming in on the issues that the guys were talking about, offering insights based on my own experiences. Strangely enough, I felt more comfortable speaking there than I had felt in my own workshop.

After the workshop ended, I went up to Mr. Varrassi to speak with him, and he remembered who I was from the e-mails. He said that just from listening to me speak there in the audience, that I was a "natural," and he wanted to know if I would like to join him and the guys ("our merry band of travelers" was how he put it, I think) when they go speaking at various conferences. Of course, I agreed. He said he wanted to keep in touch with me, so we exchanged business cards as we continued chatting on the way to the escalators.

To get back to the issue of low attendance at these workshops, I know that right now, parents of children on the autism spectrum are faced with an overwhelming number of problems, which is why conferences like this even exist in the first place. But one day those children won't be children anymore. They will turn 18, and what will happen to them? In terms of services and supports, they will drop right off the proverbial cliff. There is nothing, or almost nothing, out there for adults with autism and Asperger's syndrome.

Yet they do exist. These people are not some fantastic myth spun out of the webs of time--they are very real individuals whose lives have been put on hold because they do not have the tools necessary to be successful in society. Many still live at home with their parents and are support by them--but what happens when these parents die? What will happen to the children on the spectrum when their parents die? As many questions and concerns as there are floating around right now, that should be first and foremost in these people's minds, always knowing that one day, their 5-year-old will be 25, and will need to have a way to survive on their own.

So the lack of attendance at these workshops, while not entirely unexpected, still left me wondering when everyone else is going to wake up and catch sight of the tsunami of adolescents on the spectrum who are heading straight for the shores of adulthood and will surely crash and collapse without the assistance and support that they need.

But finally, perhaps the reason I had so few people attend my workshop is that it's simply a rite of passage. Like how someone who is nominated for an Emmy for the first time never wins. If it is just a one-time thing, then I am not so perturbed by it, and I have faith that the turnout next year will be better. I just hope that I don't become the Susan Lucci of autism conferences. Yikes.

So, even though things didn't go quite how I'd hoped, I'm still glad that I presented at Autism New Jersey's annual conference. I'm now focused on presenting again next year, and what I anticipate presenting is my finished thesis study and the data gleaned therein. I think it will be very interesting and I want to share it with the world because of the social significance of such a study, as no one has ever taught dating skills to adults with Asperger's before using the principles of applied behavior analysis. Look out, here comes tomorrow...

Here also is a video of my presentation from the conference. The first four minutes are the remainder of Lynda's portion of the presentation, and the rest is mine: