Life’s a Beach!

Autism parents relax, reconnect and recharge at the  annual National Autism Conference

Warm breezes. Cool, white powdery sand between your toes. The sound of waves and seagulls. Sipping a cool umbrella drink while watching a fiery orange sky as the sun sinks slowly beneath the sea.

This might sound like the ideal vacation, but it’s also exactly what you’ll find at the National Autism Conference (NAC) hosted annually by the National Autism Association (NAA) in sunny Florida.

A Chance To Unwind

The TradeWinds Island Resort on St. Pete Beach near Tampa, Florida has been the site of the conference for two years and rave reviews from attendees have ensured the conference will remain there for the foreseeable future. This year’s event is scheduled for November 8-11 when the average temperature is a mild 80 degrees and where the average guest is smiling and relaxed.

“For us, the National Autism Conference is about providing not just an exceptional educational opportunity, but an affordable, fun and relaxed experience, “ says Wendy Fournier, President of the National Autism Association and mother of an affected child. “Every detail of the event is meticulously planned with the intent to send our attendees home feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and hopeful.”

TradeWinds, upon learning they would host NAC for the first time in 2010, wasted no time in preparing for families affected by autism. Collaborating with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), they sent 150 of their resort staff members for specialized training on autism, developed social stories for guests with autism, safety kits that include door alarms, outlet covers and table corner cushions, and gluten-free menus at all of their food and beverage outlets. Some conference attendees say they plan to make this an annual family vacation enjoying the spacious rooms with refrigerators and microwave ovens. Childcare, which must be arranged in advance, is available for conference attendees bringing their children with autism.

Still other attendees come sans children and view this as a combination conference and retreat. For some, NAC has become an annual reunion of sorts. For long-time attendees, one of the highlights of the event is the presentation of NAA’s BELIEVE Award, now named in memory of NAA co-founder Jo Pike. Jo was a tireless advocate, mom and friend to the autism community who succumbed to cancer in 2010, but whose gentle and loving spirit lives on.

“No matter where you go on the property, you will find someone from the conference and they make you feel like family,” says Catherine Masha of Katy, Texas. “The conference provides free breakfast and lunch items, and free beverages throughout the day, which helps make the weekend that much more affordable. There’s also plenty of time to visit with exhibitors.”

The more leisurely pace of the conference is also conducive to rejuvenation. Sessions begin later in the morning and evening activities encourage networking in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. The highlight of the conference is the Saturday night “Life’s a Beach” dinner and dance, held under the stars on the resort’s beautiful beachfront property. It’s a chance for guests to let loose, relax and dance with their toes in the sand.

Keeping Connected

Kim Mack Rosenberg, President of the NAA New York Metro Chapter, also views it as a time to renew relationships with people she’s connected with online and to strengthen the national commitment to NAA’s goals.

“As an NAA Chapter President, I look forward to the conference as a chance to connect with the national leadership and fellow chapter leaders to share ideas and brainstorm about ways to make our great organization even better. I often come with friends from the New York Metro area,” says Rosenberg. “It is a chance for us to relax, hang out and catch up - all while learning cutting-edge information. It’s also a chance for me to see friends from all over the U.S. and the world.” Rosenberg adds the conference is often the only time she can catch up with those friends she connects with all year via Facebook and email. “But there’s nothing like being together and this conference is a great opportunity to see old friends and make new connections!”

2012 Keynote Speaker

Eustacia Cutler, mother of Temple Grandin, widely regarded as one of the most influential and successful adults with autism, will talk about the challenges of raising her daughter in the 1950s. Temple’s story is an inspiration to all as, together with the help of her family, she navigated a difficult and sometimes hostile world to overcome many challenges. Dr. Grandin eventually earned her doctoral degree in animal science and she has authored books on living with autism as well as books on how animals think, act and feel. This journey, told from her mother’s perspective, is an inspiring story of unconditional love and perseverance.

Cutler earned a B.A. from Harvard, was a band singer at the Pierre Hotel in New York City, performed and composed for an NYC cabaret, and wrote school lessons for major TV networks. Her research on autism and retardation created the script for two WGBH television documentaries: The Disquieted and The Innocents, a prize winning first. Her 2006 book, A Thorn in My Pocket, describes raising Temple in the Leave-it-to-Beaver world of the 1950s when children with autism were routinely diagnosed as infant schizophrenics and banished to institutions.

“I’ll tell you a bit about raising Temple in the fifties, how she conquered the hurdles of childhood and has gone on to surprise us all,” says Cutler. “I’ll describe some of my own life experiences including the complicated family battle that the diagnosis of infant schizophrenia stirred up. I’ll go into the neurological stumbling blocks of autism, why they take a toll on both child and family, and I’ll cover how current bio-neurological research is pointing us toward insightful possibilities of change.”

Cutting-Edge Presentations

All NAC speakers are vetted to provide attendees with the latest advances in all relevant areas, according to Fournier. In addition to a full-day event on special education law (an optional pre-conference workshop), a full range of topics including the latest biomedical treatments, the current state of research, cutting-edge therapies and practical tips for families will be covered. David Berger, MD, FAAP, will also talk about Preconception and Prenatal Strategies for a Healthy Baby with critical information that could help prevent autism.

“There are plenty of educational opportunities without being overwhelming,” says Masha, who says she returns from every conference with new ideas to help her own children and the families she consults with in her supplement business. “You learn things at a conference you can’t really learn in a book, because you listen to many speakers on related topics and begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together for your child based on what is relevant to your situation.”

Understanding of autism, its causes and what confers vulnerability, as well as effective treatment strategies, is still in the “steep part of the learning curve” which makes it all the more important to keep up with the latest research and speak firsthand to scientists, doctors and researchers on the front lines of the epidemic. The relaxed pace, intimate venue and smaller crowds make it easy to connect with parents and presenters alike.

“Viewing the sunset, piña colada in hand, with a group of dedicated autism warrior parents and the specialists who believe in them is a rare, inspirational experience,” says Masha. “I wouldn’t miss it.”


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