I attended the ICare4Autism conference in Jerusalem last week. I wrote about this not long ago on my blog Emma's Hope Book. As a quick recap, Jerusalem was the place Richard and I had intended to go for our honeymoon. Six weeks before we were due to leave, the intifada broke out, forcing us to abandon our plans. That was 13 years ago. This past May I received a letter from the "State of Israel" inviting me to be their guest at the ICare4Autism Conference. I was thrilled.
In addition, Dr. Henry and Dr. Kamila Markram were presenting at the conference. They are the neuroscientist team who came up with The Intense World Theory For Autism, the only theory to date that has validated my observations of my 10-year-old daughter, Emma. When I read they were going to be in Jerusalem this past winter I joked with Richard about how amazing it would be to meet them and go to Jerusalem. At the time we just laughed at the insanity of the idea and went on with our lives. Then the invitation arrived. I knew it meant I would need to write about the conference. Writing about the conference was why I'd been invited.
Except I do not consider myself a "journalist." I am not an impartial, unbiased observer, prepared to provide an even-handed summation of my observations. I am highly-opinionated and exceptionally-biased in my ever-evolving perspective on autism. I regard the motivations of most so-called autism advocacy organizations with suspicion and even outrage. I am frequently hostile in my view of the self-appointed autism experts, medical charlatans and other "professionals" who make a living off desperate parents like myself. If I had all the money I've spent on the various "cures," biomedical interventions and dubious therapies we have employed over these past eight years, I wouldn't have cared about an invitation providing me with airfare and hotel accommodations.
In less than a year, my perspective has radically changed. Had I attended this conference last August my focus would have been on meeting as many researchers and doctors as time would allow. I would have spent each break perusing the many tables set up outside the conference rooms selling all manner of goods purported to help a child with autism (and yes, that is how I would have described my daughter -- a child with autism) hoping for something that would cure my daughter with the same longing and desperation that had dragged me from one "specialist" to the next for all those years, not so very long ago.
But that was before.
That was before we began implementing Emma's literacy program. That was before I read Henry and Kamila Markram's Intense World Theory for Autism. That was before I began reading the blogs of autistic adults and as a result began communicating with a number of them. Suddenly, and it really was relatively quick, I began to view my daughter through the eyes of someone seeking to understand rather than fix. I began to see her actions, whether it was stimming, echolalia or self-injurious behavior, as her attempts to communicate rather than aberrant behaviors that needed to be quelled and eliminated.
Was ICare4Autism going to be different than any of the other organizations out there promoting interventions, therapies and the ever-illusive and questionable promise of a cure? The information I compiled prior to the conference did not look promising. But I kept reassuring myself the Markrams would be there, and if nothing else, I had set up an interview to speak with them. Beyond that there seemed little to distinguish them from any of the other organizations using "autism" in their name. Still, I went to the opening dinner with an upbeat, hopeful attitude, eager for a better idea of the organization's intentions. When the opening video played I consoled myself that at least the distraught parents filmed were not openly weeping and talking about their distress in front of their children. By the way, just in case anyone misunderstands me, less than two years ago I could have been one of those sobbing parents, and I would have wept in front of my daughter and spoken of her with the mistaken assumption that she couldn't understand. It would not have occurred to me that hearing her mother speak of a desire to cure her might have made her feel horrible, sad and depressed, things she wouldn't be able to communicate to me, which would only further her sadness and feelings of isolation. I get it. Really, I do.
The conference began with a welcoming ceremony with a speech from the founder and CEO, Joshua Weinstein, who called for communication and collaboration. He spoke of plans to move their headquarters to Jerusalem, a city with a long history of misunderstanding and strife, making his call for communication and collaboration all the more significant. The Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, spoke of his pride in hosting the ICare4Autism conference and eagerness in it becoming a world center for autism research. Dr. Shekhar Saxena, director of mental health and substance abuse at the World Health Organization, spoke briefly, as did a number of others. And then the Autistic Boys Choir got on the stage. Seven teenagers began to sing, their voices rang loud and clear, their pitch was perfect, their enthusiasm and joy infectious, and the audience began to weep. I was right there with them, madly rummaging around for my kleenex, trying not to let out too much noise other than the odd sniffle. I wept from sheer gratitude, because these teenage boys/men were like my daughter. One young man in particular who clearly reveled in performing reminded me of Emma. So yes, I wept from relief, from joy, from seeing autism shown not as a tragedy, but as difference and of hope for what can only be described as the possibilities, not just for our children, but for us as a society when we hand the microphone over to those we say we care about and want to help: autistics.
Over the course of the next day and a half I tried to meet with Joshua Weinstein but for a variety of reasons wasn't able to. Then finally in the afternoon of the last day of the conference, I saw Joshua Weinstein and mustered up the courage to approach him. I spoke to him about why the autism = tragedy model needed to be discarded, that while it may get people to write checks it was an unbalanced view, completely disregarding the feelings of autistics (our children) who are being sent the message that they make their parents and families desperately unhappy, the very people who are supposedly trying to help them. Josh was not only kind and receptive, but later thanked me for coming over to him. He assured me that he really was interested in communicating with autistics and would take me up on my offer to introduce him to a number of people I know, both verbal and nonverbal, and am in contact with.
Josh invited me to be on the advisory board, which I've agreed to. He is working with a number of people at the UN, as well as WHO (World Health Organization) and asked that I attend the UN meeting. He has, since we spoke at the conference, called, and we are in email contact, demonstrating his sincere desire to follow through with his promises and words. Am I surprised? Yes. I am. But more than that I am hopeful. Hopeful that ICare4Autism will actually include the very people they say they care about by putting them on their advisory board and by listening to them as they develop and attempt to fulfill their mission in becoming a worldwide autism organization that does more than pay lip service to those who are autistic.
"Caring about autism -- what we know of it and how we put it in our narratives -- is something from which all manner of people can and must benefit." Representing Autism Culture, Narrative, Fascination by Stuart Murray
Autistic Boys Choir
For Emma's Hope Book click here.
For more by Ariane Zurcher, click here.
For more on autism, click here.