More than 300 parents, providers and researchers converged on the UC Davis Conference Center Friday, August 2 for a day full of lectures, discussion and networking around autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
The sold-out MIND Summer Institute, organized by the Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, provided something for everyone, with break-out sessions focused on the needs of and programs for preschoolers, school-aged children, young adults transitioning to adulthood and families.
The day kicked off with a panel of young adult autism self-advocates who shared very personal stories about being bullied or left out of peer groups as children and how they found strength in their talents, whether as martial arts experts, public speakers, marathoners, teachers or artists. The panel sparked a lively question-and-answer session – mostly from parents of young children with autism struggling with similar challenges.
“I was especially impressed with the stories of the self-advocates, and personally very proud of the fact that the MIND Institute had helped them be successful,” said Leonard Abbeduto, director of the UC Davis MIND Institute. “It was also very rewarding to see the hallway conversations between family members and presenters. These conversations often lead to innovations at the MIND and the care and help families receive.”
Speakers included several MIND Institute and other UC Davis Health faculty members such as Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, who talked about his adult autistic son, an accomplished artist, as well as experts from around California. These included Michael Laharty of the Sacramento County Office of Education and parent of a teen with special needs, and a team from Sonoma County that developed a sex education program for people with developmental and neurodevelopmental disabilities.
Laharty discussed the challenges for young people who have relied on educational and other services and are now making the transition from school into the world of work and other adult pursuits. He stressed how important it is for parents and providers to teach children with disabilities social skills such as communication and problem-solving throughout their lives. Social skills help boost the chances of success at this critical stage of development and prevent some of the problems that occur without them.
One of the problems raised in another session is sexual assault, which occurs at a rate seven times higher in individuals with developmental disabilities.
The Sonoma County group demonstrated Relationships Decoded, a free, evidence-based curriculum designed to teach people with developmental disabilities how to develop healthy and meaningful relationships. The program also provides information about sexual abuse and coercion.
Aguilar-Gaxiola, a professor of Internal Medicine and director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities, offered hope to families struggling with a child who has autism. His heartfelt talk was about his son, Alex, who had been picked on as a child, struggled with friendships and suffered from depression. An avid video gamer, puzzle enthusiast and artist, Alex is now an art school graduate and working on video game development.
Aguilar-Gaxiola stressed that people with autism have many strengths and special talents, and that families experiencing stress can thrive. He suggested they focus on exercise, nutrition and relaxation time. And reminded people about the importance of humor and respite – especially for parents.
Abbeduto said he was pleased that the MIND Summer Institute reached so many people with such a diverse group of both presenters and participants.
“There always is something for everyone at the Summer Institutes,” he said, “and it is so rewarding that the presentations reflect a range of MIND Institute programs and the myriad of partnerships we have with professionals, state and county agencies, and families.”