The panel is usually made up of four individuals and the moderator. These individuals must have an ASD diagnosis and must personally agree to speak. Each panelist has an allotted time to talk and it is suggested that they tell about their childhood, including what life was like for them in their early years. They design their own talk, but it is suggested that they talk about their family and how their parents and/or siblings helped them. It is also recommended that they tell about their educational experience. It can be helpful if they discuss how schools helped them and what made their school years more difficult. The audience also likes to hear about their sensory issues and what strategies helped them. Every individual has special interests and talents they can share. We also like to hear about their social skills concerns and if they have made friends and had relationships. In addition, we like to hear about their employment or career goals and the dreams for their life. I suggest that they tell us what myths about autism they have heard and that they would like to debunk. Some individuals have reasons to be angry, but I suggest that they create a positive talk that will teach their audience and inspire other individuals with ASD. I encourage these individuals to thank specific persons who have helped them.
One of the jobs of the moderator is to introduce the individuals on the panel. Another job is to keep the timing on track without offending or cutting short someone’s impassioned speech. I set up hand signals with the panel to help them understand how much time they have and when they need to “wrap it up.” I explain that if I give them the wrap-it-up signal, they do not need to stop immediately, but should finish their thought and end their turn so the next person can speak.
When everyone has had a turn to talk, we invite any individual in the audience who has ASD a chance to introduce themselves. This is not required, and some individuals choose not to draw attention to themselves. However, many are glad to say their names and where they are from. Over the years, this session has been a place where individuals on the spectrum have the chance to meet each other. The session often ends with clusters of individuals talking to each other, with some going off for more socializing.
After these introductions, the audience has time to ask questions of the panel. The moderator recognizes the raised hands from the audience. She repeats the question into the microphone and checks with the panelists to see who would like to answer the question. If the question is inappropriate or someone does not want to answer it, it is passed on. The moderator attempts to keep the questioning in balance so each panelist has a fair chance to talk. She often needs to rephrase the question in a clearer way, and there are times when she needs to encourage panelists to let them know they are doing just fine. Many individuals who have become well-known speakers began their speaking experiences on the Speaking for Themselves panel.
Over the years, almost every kind of crisis or situation has occurred. There have been panelists who felt nervous and read their speech from notes, which is fine. There have been panelists who had their speech read for them. There have been "no shows" and overly anxious individuals. One panelist froze, but when the moderator asked questions, he was able to respond and speak in the question/answer format. There have been panelists with unusual or unique points of view. One overly tactile sensitive woman hit the moderator when she touched her on the shoulder. There have been antagonistic or highly critical panelists. However, despite these challenges, it always turns out wonderfully. Every year people say, “I come to this panel every time, and this year it was the best ever!” Every year, the panelists walk away feeling better about themselves for having been listened to and applauded by an appreciative audience.
Julie A. Donnelly, Ph.D.
University of Missouri, Columbia
Julie Donnelly, Ph.D., an adjunct associate professor for the University of Missouri where she teaches autism classes in their Masters program in autism. She keynotes conferences, gives presentations, consults and publishes internationally. Julie is the mother of Jean-Paul Bovee, who experiences autism.