Monday, 11 August 2014

Aspect Autism in Education Conference

Aspect Autism in Education Conference

On the last day of last month and the first day of this month I was in Sydney for the inaugural Autism in Education conference hosted with Aspect (the autism association of New South Wales). I mentioned a little while back that I was going to post a summary of the conference from my perspective. 

It's taken me a while to catch up on sleep and mental energy in normal life after racing around to two conferences in two different states and visiting family. 

As a conference nerd (took a week and a half of my annual leave for this) and somewhat of a research junkie (at uni I was the one undergrad who went along to all the psychology colloquium lectures) I'm probably a bit biased towards liking conferences whether or not they are accepting and diverse but here goes...

The first thing I'll say is that I really liked the size of the conference (about 450 delegates) and the location (the layout was really cool, breakout rooms were close to eachother and who wouldn't want to meet in an old rail yard). 

Walking from my hotel next to central to the venue in Eveleigh was a good way to the first morning. I saw fellow APAC 1013 Future Leader Alex pretty much as soon as I walked in the door and soon after saw and got to have a chat to the amazing, compassionate and incredibly busy Judy Brewer who was also giving the opening plenary.

Some of the speakers I enjoyed hearing included the lady from the WA Catholic Education Office presenting her work on trying to change PE teachers attitudes towards students with autism and give them more appropriate sports options and Erica Dixon from the Victorian Education Department talking about what that state is doing to better serve students with autism by better serving all students. It was a real treat to get to meet Wenn Lawson and hear her present on autism and attention and it was very cool to see so many people I knew get up in front of people and give great talks: Thomas, Daniel, Meredith & Jeanette. Apologies to Mathew and Matthew who's talks I didn't get to see.

I thought it was good having a themed conference. Education is a broad enough topic to have plenty of scope but narrow enough that people are present with the same purpose. As someone who wasn't diagnosed until after finishing school it was useful and valuable to learn about how kids with autism are supported in schools. I particularly enjoyed learning more about program 2 of the autism
CRC and the opportunity to chat and meet with a wide variety of people. I also thought it was good that they included an art exhibition and dance groups in the program.

I can't really comment on the stalls and posters but the layout of that area wasn't overly helpful for me. It was a long and fairly thin area with stalls on either wall and tables of food and drink for lunch and refreshments in the middle. This made for quite the cacophony in breaks. I particularly felt for the people with special dietary needs as reaching the table with their food involved walking through the length of the crowd.

Around the corner from the main break area was the ASC chill out room. This was pretty well set up, giving a space to have space and to chat with other autistics. What would have been useful would have been to have had exclusive use of the room or at least to know ahead of time it was going to also be used rid luggage storage and as  a dressing room for the dance groups.

I enjoyed the social side of the conference. I like meeting and listening to people. I quite enjoyed the drinks after the first day's sessions and appreciated Meredith's informal support when trying to meet  people during the breaks. If I were to change anything about the conference it would have been to make the breaks a bit longer. The short breaks made it difficult to transition between sessions and meant that chatting to someone could potentially mean missing lunch.

My presentation itself went well. I was happy with what I ended up conveying and I didn't get too nervous. I spoke about my experiences of student driven open ended learning in high school, and in particular being a founding student at the Australian Science and Mathematics School. Afterwards an academic who works in the education department at Flinders Uni came up and introduced herself. She said she had been involved in the setting up of the school and that I'd conveyed their take on learning well. She also said she should have recognized my name because it would come up all the time when I was a student there - somewhat the student who was willing and able to do anything :P kind of surreal but also cool to know I had a reputation like that that someone could recognize ten years on.

All in all I am glad I went to the conference. I enjoyed being able to share, learn and catch up with people.

Next blog post should be about the Victorian Autism Conference. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Onward and upward and not quite real

The last couple of days have been a bit interesting. I lay in bed tonight and reflect on the fact I have spoken at two autism
conferences in the last week and been interviewed for TV. 

If anyone hasn't seen it this is the link -

So much more to say but it really has been a big day and right now I need to sleep 

Friday, 1 August 2014

Spades and shovels

I'd like to start this post by saying that I've had a great time at the inaugural Autism in Education conference put on by Autism Spectrum Australia. 

I hope to reflect a bit more and post about what I learnt and how I enjoyed it in the coming days. There is something that has been niggling at me for a while now (not just during this conference) and I feel like now I have the words to talk about it. So here we are on our way to an observation which I hope people understand is an ongoing thing which is in response to a number of experiences rather than my predominant feeling about this particular conference which I found both informative and immensely enjoyable.

Yesterday I was one of four speakers in a session of diversity. I got up and spoke about my experiences in high school and particularly my experiences of choice and flexibility in learning. 

After I spoke the other speakers all made sure to tell me I'd done a good job. This is something that I do appreciate, but there is a comment I would like to make about this polite and well-intentioned social practice. 

Good job is a pretty ambiguous comment and I'm not really sure if people would have said something had they not known about my diagnosis. It could equally mean "good job for getting up there and talking - it can't have been easy" or "good job that was a clear and informative presentation and I enjoyed it". When I'm unsure whether it's just one of those things people feel somehow obliged to say because it's polite, telling me I've done a "good job" after I get up in front of people and talked about my experiences doesn't really tell me anything beyond the fact that people wish to be supportive.

The purpose of speaking at conferences is to share ideas and communicate a clear message. Knowing how successful I have been at this is useful. I realise not everyone may feel comfortable giving me specific feedback but knowing a bit more about what I did well is useful i.e. It was really good how you explained blah or the personal stories made it easy to relate to. Equally, I'd prefer to know if my presentation was vague and confusing than to live in ignorance and have people misunderstand my intended message.

I understand that people don't want to "beat us down with a shovel" (be bluntly honest and in doing so make us feel hurt badly about ourselves which may damage our self-esteem) but whilst encouragement is important we value the truth. We prefer people to "call a spade a spade" (to tell the truth and not lie in order to protect someone's feelings from being hurt). One of the things that gets brought up again and again as one of the strengths of Autistic people is our honesty - and usually we prefer people being honest with us too. Constructive feedback given well allows people not just to be encouraged but to do a better job next time. If we haven't communicated something well we'd rather know that and rephrase or improve it for next time than be told we've done a brilliant job when we actually haven't.

To be clear here I am not talking about the words or actions of any specific persons. I appreciated the encouragement given to me by people who heard my talk yesterday at the Aspect Autism in Education conference. What I'm referring to here is a general trend or culture.

The culture of low expectations is an often subconscious, but nevertheless persistent, problem that isn't unique to Autism (see Stella Young's speech from TEDxSydney - ). I'd like to know if I did a good talk by the general standards of a good talk not just a good talk for someone with a  developmental disability.

The thing that I find ironic about this is that many of the people likely to give this ambiguous, polite kind of feedback are researchers. As someone who has studied psychology I know that researchers go to great lengths to try and minimize response bias in their studies. That is to do their utmost to ensure that people aren't responding in a way they view as socially desirable or presume is what the researcher wants instead of really being honest. Autistic people are often highly logical but we can't create an objective external view of ourselves, we need the feedback of others to assess our communication and collect evidence reassess how we can be successful. This means that specific, constructive and honest feedback is highly useful.

So by all means we appreciate people's encouragement. But when being told we have done a good job - we would like to know when it's the objective truth and not just one of those things people say.

Twitter account

Don't know how much I'll use it but I've now created a twitter account - @boldlygrowing