When my son was first diagnosed in 2007 and I was desperately seeking information, I stumbled across a website called autismone.org I felt like I had hit gold because on this site was an amazing collection of presentation materials and some videos on all things autism. Treatments, causes, therapies, science, science, science – it was all there in one amazing place for me to explore and reference. From that point forward, I knew I would attend this conference in person. I HAD to attend this event in person.
Fast forward to 2013 and I’m there. In Chicago. Meeting all of these amazing parents and their kids and sharing in the experience. I was expecting to learn. I was expecting to have a good time. I did both. There were, however, a few things that I wasn’t expecting like the rush of grief and sorrow that suddenly rises when I hear another mom speak of her child’s struggle. I expected to go home refreshed and recharged and ready to go. I felt more like I had been through the ringer and that I needed a vacation before going home!
I’m a learning nerd. I love conferences. I’m also a professional trainer and speaker and I’ve participated in conference planning so I come at this topic from several angles. There are several autism related conferences throughout the country and I wish I could attend every one of them but my bank account and my family say “no” to that! So my choice to make AutismOne THE conference I attend stems from those dark nights, seeking and finding answers that would help my child who was really very ill.
And this year is a new first for me – I’m presenting a workshop on caretaker self-care on Wednesday. The lovely Karen Kain will be presenting part II of our self-care presentation on Thursday.
So, if this will be your first year at AutismOne or if you’re just looking to improve your conference experience, here are some tips:
1. This conference is very, very large. There are over 150 speakers over the course of 5 days, There are also over 100 exhibitors. BE PREPARED FOR PEOPLE. Allow yourself the opportunity to take some quiet breaks throughout the day. There are some nooks and crannies at the conference hotel that will allow you to step away, meditate, sleep, zone out – whatever you need in order to refresh yourself. Above all else, you need to take care of yourself.
2. When you check in, you’ll get a conference program that lists the complete schedule. Get out your highlighter and mark which presentations and events you are most interested in. Read it over several times and check for any updates on schedule changes. And on that note – SCHEDULE CHANGES HAPPEN. The program guide is printed well in advance of the conference date and life happens. Managing 150+ speakers is like herding cats. Bring your flexibility! And yes, the lectures that you most want to see will be scheduled for the same day and time. It’s inevitable.
3. Pack with the assumption that you will be bringing stuff back home so leave some room in your suitcase. My first year I came back with a stack of books and other materials. You’ll be able to collect lots of free stuff and samples but also be prepared to purchase some things at the exhibitor tables. Most of them are able to take credit cards but you also might want to bring some cash.
4. Food. Unless you spend all of your time in large metropolitan restaurants, the menu is going to seem very expensive. That’s because it is. But you have to remember this is Chicago… at a hotel… It is what it is and the food is going to cost more there than what you are used to paying. I like to pack Lara Bars, beef jerky and other dry snacks so that I have my own food, when I need it. I also like to bring single packets of instant coffee and tea bags so I can make my own coffee in the room rather than buy my coffee at the coffee stand located in the lobby (which by the way, always has a line). If you plan it well, you can bring enough non-perishable food to cover at least one meal of each day to save money.
5. Bring a light jacket or shawl to wear during the presentations. No one EVER in the history of conference attendance has EVER been completely satisfied with room temperature. And the fact is, it’s incredibly difficult to regulate the heat in those rooms with the partitions and everything else going on. You will likely be on the cold side. Bring a jacket. And maybe some socks.
6. Be prepared to talk with other people. If you are shy by nature, step out of your comfort zone and strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. You likely won’t find another group of 1500 people who are this inclusive and open to meeting new people. Also don’t be afraid to approach any presenters or doctors you see at the conference. They are there to help YOU. This is your chance to ask your burning questions and to try to find some answers. And while you’re at it, talk with the vendors and exhibitors. They WANT to talk to you – not just to sell you something but to have a basic conversation. Do you know how hard it is to sit at a table for hours and days on end?! Be charitable and help them out.
7. Any time you have this many people congregated, the energy and emotions are going to be swirling. This conference has parents who are just new to this world, parents who have lived with autism for decades, parents who are still grieving, parents who have recovered children and friends who are excited to be able to spend time with each other once again. Your interaction with all of these folks will likely invoke some emotions on your part. My only advice is to acknowledge what you are feeling, accept it for what it is and don’t judge yourself for what you are feeling. I think for me the feelings of grief are the most challenging because I’d like to think I’ve moved on but really, it’s a matter of layers when it comes to our own healing.
8. You will likely leave the conference feeling as confused about what to do next as you were when you first learned that there were options for healing your child. As a ‘veteran’, I couldn’t believe how many different directions I wanted to go in at the end of 2016’s conference. The information you will get at this conference is a starting point. A starting point for more research and discernment about what will be best for your child and your family. Be open to new information but be wary about getting overly excited and jumping from your current protocol into something completely different without complete discernment.
9. Be kind to yourself. Eat, drink and be merry but also remember to bring some nux vomica, your essential oils and some activated charcoal. Also, remember this is about YOU and taking care of yourself. If you are there on Wednesday, please come see my workshop (at 4:00 pm) on just how to do this. If you can’t make Wednesday’s session, I’ll be at the conference through Saturday afternoon so if you see me, just ask for a few minutes to chat!
I often hear from others that they cannot afford to go to conferences. Trust me, I get that. I used airline miles for tickets the first two years I went. Some years I shared a room (with more people than I would ever imagine – but hey, it should be fun and I’m living outside of my comfort zone, right?!). Other options include asking your state’s Council on Developmental Disabilities to provide you scholarship money for attending. Another option would be to reach out to your local Autism advocacy group for assistance. Even conducting personal fundraising with family can help defray the costs of attending.
AutismOne is an amazing opportunity to learn from practitioners and researchers, to learn and connect with other parents and to get a chance to relax, laugh and have some fun. I look forward to seeing you there and I’m expecting a hug even if we’ve never met before. That’s what it’s all about! ~ Amy Y.