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UWRF University Center proves prime location to hold third annual Knowing Autism Conference

February 10, 2012

On Friday, Feb. 3, more than 200 people attended the 3rd annual Knowing Autism Conference held at the University Center.

This all-day event was organized by the Western Wisconsin Autism Advocacy and Consulting Center (WWAACC) Inc. and co-sponsored by UW-River Falls Communicative Disorders, School Counseling and Psychology, and Social Work programs. Other sponsors of the event include: Andersen Corporation, New Richmond Area Community Foundation and the River Falls School District.

This year’s theme was inclusivity and featured two nationally acclaimed guests as the keynote and feature speakers. UWRF professors, alumni and other educators and service providers from the area also presented at the 10 different afternoon break-out sessions.

“The primary goal of the conference is to increase awareness and educate the public, parents, educators, and service providers about the methods and strategies for improving the lives of those with autism,” explained WWAACC President Mary Paulson.

The conference has been held in the UC every year since it first began. Holding the conference at UWRF was a decision made based on the central location of the campus in Wisconsin and its proximity to the Twin Cities.

“The University Center is a great facility that many people are unaware of,” Paulson said.

Paula Kluth, a consultant, author, advocate and independent scholar opened the conference with her keynote address. Kluth presented on the topic of educating students with autism in inclusive schools. Her presentation titled “You’re going to love this kid,” which is also the title of one of her books, explained how educators can listen to the voices of those with autism and help to create more comfortable learning environments for those students. Kluth gave many examples of opportunities for communication and connection. She had the audience playing games and participating in other activities to help the participants learn some different strategies.

The participants of the conference were educators, service providers, and also parents and family members of children on the spectrum. Kim Campion is a parent and member of an Autism group created in the Webster school district in Webster, Wis.

“I attend the Knowing Autism Conferences because they re-energize me, give me specific tools to help my daughter, and offer hope for her future. This year I enjoyed the information and positive perspective Paula Kluth presented and I took home practical tools that we can use right away to help our daughter and our family be more successful on our journey,” said Campion.

Kluth’s presentation was informational and was a great start to the conference. Following Kluth on the conference agenda was feature speaker, Patrick Schwarz. His presentation described universal design and how it provides access to curriculum for all learners. Schwarz’s presentation was dynamic and engaging as he explained how to provide more options in the classroom with the use of differentiated education and curricular adaptations.

“You have to think big, but start small,” explained Schwarz.

Both Kluth and Schwarz mentioned how prevalent autism is today and why it is so important for people to really understand the disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that one in 110 children in the U.S. have an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“Bringing the community together is key at these regional conferences. When people can get together in large groups it allows them to make big changes. You can tell that people came in teams with the purpose of collaborating and that is what makes regional conferences so unique,” said Kluth.

The 10 different break-out sessions held in the afternoon part of the conference allowed the participants to choose a topic being presented that they were really interested in.

Paula Zelinski, a Speech/language Pathologist, attended a session on using technology with students on the autism spectrum. The workshop focused on some of the newest applications available to improve communication skills and other academic areas.

“The handouts were very helpful. One handout in particular gave a list of free applications that teachers and parents have found useful in teaching children with autism,” said Zelinski.

Michael Harris, professor and chair of the department of communicative disorders and associate dean of the college of education and professional studies, presented a break out session explaining intervention strategies that minimize the need to honor the function of challenging behavior.

“Many people commented that this was the best conference yet,” said Harris.

There were many different exhibitors at the conference to provide information about their organization to participants. Exhibitors included, but were not limited to, Healing Waters Health Center, Bridge for Youth and Adults with Disabilities, and Project Lifesaver. The University Speech-Language and Hearing Clinic also had a booth set up to provide information about services on campus.

Paulson believes the conference was a great success. Even though numbers were down a little from last year’s conference, participants were still provided a day filled with tips, tricks, and ideas to create a more inclusive experience for children on the spectrum.

“The conference has the potential to impact the lives of an infinite number of people with autism.”

Schwarz believes that it is really about making the information available to everyone. With autism so prevalent in our world today, a greater knowledge of the disorder is beneficial to not just educators, parents, and service providers, but everyone.

“This conference has opened the door for opportunities. People can share ideas and take steps together, which is a really great thing!”