Benjamin Keynote at National Conference

For the first time, I’ve traveled out of state to give a presentation! My mom and I flew to Kansas City, MO, and I missed a few days of school so I could be part of an amazing keynote. The folks at USAAA (U.S. Autism & Asperger’s Association) dreamed up a format that has never been seen at such a conference before: five inspiring speakers, each talking for ten minutes or less, one after another, in a TEDx-style presentation.

It started off with Raun Kaufman, who spoke about the power of hope. He was severely autistic as a toddler, but his parents refused to put him in an institution like the doctors were recommending. In fact, by working with him intensively, all day, every day, they recovered him from all his symptoms by the time he was five years old! Now he’s my mom’s age, giving workshops and speaking all over the world. His parents’ approach became the “Son Rise” method which has helped countless families since the 1960’s. In fact, when my mom first found out about my autism, she read the book about Raun, and it gave her hope and sparked the determination to follow in the Kaufmans’ footsteps, striving to recover me as much as possible, pushing back the dark clouds that seemed to be taking me over.

Then came Stephen Shore, also my mom’s age and a professor of special education at Adelphi University. His way out of severe autism was music. Nowadays, people can study to become music therapists, but musical people like Stephen’s parents—and my mom too—naturally use music as a key to our hearts and minds. They follow their instincts and have a feel for teaching, as well as lots of energy and determination. Nowadays, although he still has autism, Stephen loves teaching at the university, and he also travels—he has taught people about autism in something like 46 countries and has written several books! He has a real love for teaching children on the spectrum how to play instruments, especially the piano and recorder, and he’s into all the research surrounding autism. He’s also an expert bicycle mechanic!

USAAA keynote

Next, it was my turn. One of my favorite things is to make people laugh, and so I told jokes and threw out a few spoonerisms as part of my “Reader’s Digest version” of my life story! Since I love birds so much, and parrots in particular, my stories all featured these feathered friends of mine. The audience laughed so much, and my mom was in the front row looking like a beaming sun; I felt great up there, entertaining so many hundreds of people at once! I also liked the light that the enormous crystal chandeliers threw out around the fancy room. Here’s the link to my segment (use your use your imagination to fill in the audience’s sighs and laughs; only my voice is audible on the video).   Later on in the day, I improvised at the baby grand piano that was nearby. I have recordings of relaxation music that I can play by ear; the only thing missing was the bird and nature sounds that are part of those recordings…

The fourth speaker was Jennifer O’Toole who found out about her Asperger’s fairly recently; she’s in her early thirties, has been a social worker and a writing teacher, and her daughters have Asperger’s too—she calls them her Asperkids. She brought out some ruby red slippers for her presentation and used the Wizard of Oz story as an analogy for how she sees things. Dorothy’s ruby slippers had special powers that led her to many adventures and to new friends—and they also made her very different and conspicuous, which led to difficulties. But they were very beautiful and eventually led her home—turns out she’d had that power within her all the time, she just hadn’t known it. As Jennifer pointed out:  “owning” our differences lets us find our strengths; we needn’t waste energy trying to be something that we clearly are NOT.

The last person presenting was Christopher Gauthier, an amazing photographer who has worked with some of the most famous people in that business. Like Jennifer, he got his Asperger’s diagnosis fairly recently, he’s raising a family, and his two kids are on the autism spectrum too. His talk took the form of a letter to his children, giving them advice on how to deal with the curveballs the world may throw at them for their differences. He stressed the importance of finding someone who deeply believes in you, someone who will support you in pursuing your passionate interests while also being cool with your differences and giving you that helping hand which makes things go a bit smoother.

So, that’s the sketch of a unique five-person keynote address, and I’ll bet the idea will catch on. Thanks a billion to Larry Kaplan, the founder and CEO of USAAA who introduced us all to the audience on that pretty morning in Kansas City! Being part of this conference and being a keynote speaker was a dream opportunity for me, and I will remember my intense experience there for always—as will my mom. Thanks to you all!

playing piano at USAAAme with Raun and B

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