This is a guest post by Elaine Hall, director of Autism Enrichment Programs at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services.
When Dr. Elias Lefferman, CEO of Vista Del Mar, asked me to help create the now annual Vista Autism Conference, as part of Marcia and Henry Baron’s gift to Vista and the Baron School, I was overjoyed. The year was 2008; AUTISM: The Musical, the documentary that profiled my theater program, The Miracle Project, had aired on HBO and was about to win 2 Emmys; and I was being requested as a keynote speaker and workshop presenter at conferences across the globe.
Here I was, a Mom of an autistic son, who had spent the past seven years sequestered in my home traversing through the ins and outs of autism therapies, IEP’s, Insurance claims, etc. to now being front and center and a voice for autism. It was a bit overwhelming. Especially that I was now seated at the same tables at these conferences as the very people whose books I had read, or whose conferences I had attended when my son was early diagnosed! Imagine my delight at being seated next to Carol Grey and asking her how she developed her social stories. Or sharing a late dinner with Dr. Barry Prizant, the developer of the SCERTS program and known to many as the Speech Therapist’s Speech Therapist!
I first encountered Dr. Prizant’s work when my son was only four years old and not speaking. I had read his articles and boldly emailed him a question, never really expecting a response. He not only responded, but showed intense caring and concern. Now, ten years later, to be chatting with him over dinner, colleague to colleague, was an unexpected dream come true. I knew that I wanted to bring him to Los Angeles and to the Vista Conference. Upon reading his extensive resume and some articles, Dr. Lefferman agreed that Dr. Barry Prizant would be one of our presenters at our first Autism Conference.
At the above mentioned dinner, I also met Dr. Stephen Shore, professor at Adelphi University in NYC. Dr. Shore had a quiet confidence about him, and what I went to his lecture the next day, I was blown away by the insight and guidance that only someone who has autism can give! Definitely wanted him at our conference.
Again, Dr. Lefferman agreed. So our first ever Vista Del Mar Conference, in 2009 had two of top world reknown experts in autism as keynote speakers and workshop leaders. Due to our world class line-up, I was able to get endorsed by Autism Speaks, Autism Society of Los Angeles, HaMercaz of The Jewish Federation, Children’s Hospital, UCLA Card and more!
I also wanted to share the voices of children and teens with autism, so we planned for our Miracle Project Fly Singers from the Vista Inspire Program to perform and then speak to the audience about what it feels like to have autism. They were a highlight of the conference. The overall conference was a tremendous success, with attendance by parents, professionals, grandparents, neighbors, etc. Professionals said that the networking was phenomenal. Lay people who had no understanding of autism came away with knowledge and more compassion. Those who had been in the field for years said that they had learned so much and loved running into friends they had not seen in years. A great success for our first year!
Our second year, also began with my attendance at a conference and a dinner afterwards. Dr. Barry Prizant invited me to keynote at his conference in Rhode Island along side of Temple Grandin! (Boy was I nervous!) Except for some technical glitches – getting used to doing Powerpoint – now I’m a pro – I did okay. But hearing Temple speak was a total thrill. At dinner afterwards, I asked her if she would be able to come to event. She was totally booked, but instead offered her mother’s phone number and wrote it on a napkin for me! Eustacia Cutler, portrayed by Julia Ormond in the HBO film Temple Grandin. Eustacia Cutler is an extraordinary, erudite woman in her own right whose contributions to the autism field are extremely impacting. To hear her speak is a rare gift and being in the presence of greatness. We had invited Julia Ormond to present her with our Vista Del Mar’s Baron Inspiration Award. To our unbelievable surprise, Ms. Ormond presented Eustacia with her EMMY!!! Truly a memorable event.
Last year, we invited Eustacia back along with other leaders in the autism field. The Vista Del Mar Autism Conference is now an annual event, developed by team of Vista professionals and a committee who works for a year to put it together. This year, we are Re-Thinking Autism.
With neurobiologist, Dr. Pat Levitt who is doing groundbreaking work in understanding the brain development in autism; Peter Bell, Presidential Appointee on intellectual Disabilities who will let us in on what the government is doing about autism; Diana O’brian who is launching a new website and new technology for individuals with autism; and a panel of teens and young adults – the true experts with autism – telling their truth about what it feels like to have autism and what therapies and approaches truly work for them.
Join us on November 1 at Vista Del Mar in W. LA.
No words can underscore the import and impact of local parents and professionals coming together in purpose and process. Imagine the miracles that can be shared when LA moms connect year after year with those of like mind and heart.
What started out as an idea of Dr. Elias Lefferman and Marcia and Henry Baron, has evolved into a highlight in Los Angeles’ professional and personal community. I look forward to meeting you there. We are all connected.
Elaine Hall is a Los Angeles mother, author, speaker, founder of The Miracle Project, and Director of Autism Enrichment Programs at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services.