Persons, places and things: Defeating stereotypes

Barb Arland-Fye

A friend of mine who identifies herself as “a high-functioning lady with autism” once was asked if she ever wished she didn’t have autism. Liz’s exact response escapes me, but I remember her saying that she feels good about herself.
That’s the attitude Vera French Foundation in Davenport hopes to foster through its Anti-Stigma series, which brings nationally recognized individuals living with mental health issues to the Quad-Cities to share their perspectives in a public forum.
Temple Grandin, perhaps the world’s most well-known individual with autism, is the featured speaker for this year’s free presentation on April 19 from 9-11 a.m. at The RiverCenter in Davenport. TIME magazine featured Temple as one of the 100 people who most affect our world.
No one is more articulate in explaining some of the mysteries of autism than Temple, who at age 2 was unable to speak and showed signs of severe autism. Many hours of speech therapy, and intensive teaching enabled her to learn speech. She endured constant teasing as a teenager because of unusual behavior, but her high school science teacher and an aunt who lived on a ranch motivated the young woman to pursue a career as a scientist and livestock equipment designer.
Now a professor in animal science, she’s also written books and is a sought-after speaker. She’s appeared on “60 Minutes” and was the subject of an award-winning HBO movie in 2010.
Temple’s visit coincides with Autism Awareness Month and comes at a time when autism has been garnering national headlines and attention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just released a report estimating that 1 in 88 children has been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
“It’s truly a population that is growing and we need to educate ourselves about Autism Spectrum Disorders,” said Terry Schlabach, a professor of occupational therapy at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. She also serves on the committee that asked Temple to speak here. “I think many people have stereotypes that people with autism aren’t going to be very functional, and yet we have someone like Doctor Temple Grandin.”
A number of occupational therapy students know from experience the varying and wide-ranging abilities of individuals with autism because they work with those individuals in the community. “They have so much to offer society and are very much a part of the community,” Terry said.
“The Autism Spectrum is ‘a very, very big spectrum,’” Temple noted during a recent telephone interview. “On one end you’d find someone like Einstein or Steve Jobs and on the other end a non-verbal individual.”
Temple plans to speak about four issues that impact the lives of individuals with autism: early education intervention, sensory issues “which have a huge impact on individuals with autism,” work-related skills and the “uneven skills” that individuals with autism may exhibit. “We need to build on their strengths,” Temple said. She’ll also talk about animal behavior because she’s an expert in that field.
Ann Criswell-Tubbs, executive director of the Vera French Foundation, hopes audience members take away from the event a greater awareness of autism and the understanding that “we need to be open and accepting.”
She also hopes audience members will contribute financially to support Vera French Mental Health Center in Davenport, which serves 9,000 individuals annually seeking help to deal with mental health issues. The center faces severe spending cuts from the state government. “We need to go to the community for help,” she said.
Terry hopes participants leave the event more empowered, more accepting of a diagnosis of autism and more aware of the challenges that individuals with autism face.
And I hope to gain more insight about how to help my adult son with autism gain the same sense of self-confidence that my friend Liz has developed.
You can register online for Temple’s presentation at:
Barb Arland-Fye

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