In the digital age, just about anything can be found online with a quick Google search. That’s why Scott Kramer was so confused when he wasn’t able to find anything about an adult autism conference in the Southeast.
That’s par for the course though, Kramer said, a fact he has come to know as an adult with autism himself. Despite an increasing prevalence of programs for children with autism, resources for adults with autism are inexplicably scarce, especially when it comes to large-scale networking events.
“I did an extensive search, and there are only two other types of conferences in the country, in the world, actually,” Kramer said. “There’s one in the San Francisco Bay area and one all the way in London. So I thought, ‘Why not have one in the Southeast?’”
Kramer, program director of the GCA Centre for Adult Autism in Chattanooga, Tennessee, came together with nearly 25 other directors in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia to form the inaugural Tri-State Adult Autism Conference, touted as “the first adult autism conference east of the Mississippi River” to focus solely on autism after age 18.
The conference represents a widespread effort to supply adults with autism with the resources they require to socialize and fulfill needs that are difficult for them to express and fill themselves.
“The thing is, kids with autism become adults with autism,” Kramer said. “Autism doesn’t go away. Society protects those kids with different services until they grow out of it. But those undeveloped social needs are still there.”
Most adults with autism find support online, through specialized Facebook groups and other social networks. Kramer’s intent is to bring that support into a real world setting, with the conference giving adults an opportunity to network in person by going to informational sessions together and hopefully forming lasting relationships.
“Face-to-face interaction is so important and beneficial for adults,” Kramer said. “So the main focus isn’t the conference. It’s the social networking they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Much of the conference depends on the individual effort of the participants, a hallmark of the self-advocacy that adults with autism have to embrace to increase visibility. Because autism spectrum disorders are relatively new from a social perspective—autism was only added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980—there’s still a lot to learn about their presence in adults. Often, that requires adults to be their own voices.
Bama Hager, program director of the Autism Society of Alabama, said centers and programs offer direct services for adult employment assistance, the brunt of the work for advocacy falls on the shoulders of the adults.
“One of the things we do at the Autism Society of Alabama is we support self-advocates,” Hager said. “[Adults with autism] learn a lot about themselves as they grow up—their symptoms and how they change—so self-advocates are best equipped to describe the challenges they face.”
The Autism Society of Alabama signed on as one of the first sponsors of the conference. Hager said the organization is thrilled to be involved in a conference that was conceptualized by a self-advocate.
Kramer said he hopes the conference can serve as that starting point for others as they build skills and celebrate their achievements throughout the weekend.
“It’s about bridging a gap,” Kramer said. “Even though I’m a self-advocate, it’s not all about me. It’s about making a difference.”
The conference will be at Red Bank Baptist Church in Chattanooga on Saturday, July 22, with optional social events on Friday and Sunday. Registration has already reached capacity and closed.
For more information about the conference, email Scott Kramer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 423-598-9516. To learn more about autism in Alabama, contact Bama Hager at email@example.com, or call 205-601-1374.