Autism Society records most keynote and concurrent sessions at their annual conferences. You can see and hear those recordings by purchasing full online access, or individual recordings.
The panel is usually made up of four individuals and the moderator. These individuals must have an ASD diagnosis and they must personally agree that they would like to speak. Each panelist will have an allotted time to talk. 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 tell about their family and how their parents and/ or siblings helped them. It is also good to tell about their educational experience. It can be helpful if they tell what schools did that helped them and what made their school years more difficult. The audience also likes to hear about their sensory issues and how what strategies helped with these. Every individual has special interests and talents they can share about. We also like to hear about their social skills concerns and if they have made friends and had relationships. 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 specifically persons who have been a help to 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 know how much time they have and when the 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 then end their turn so the next person can have a fair turn.
When everyone has had a turn to talk, we have a tradition that we offer 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 had the chance to meet each other. The session often ends with clusters of individuals talking to each other and some going off for social times.
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 questions into the microphone and checks with the panelists to see who would like to answer a question. If the question is inappropriate or someone does not want to answer it, then 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. There are times that she needs to encourage panelists and to let them know they are doing just fine. Over the years, many individuals who have become well known speakers began their experiences with being on the speaking for themselves panel.
Over the years, there has been every kind of crisis or situation that could occur. There have been panelists who felt nervous and read their speech from notes. No problem. There have been panelists who had their speech read for them. There have been no shows and overly anxious individuals. One panelist froze and the moderator asked questions and 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. No problem, my bad. There have been antagonistic or highly critical panelists. It always turns out wonderful. 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.
Content Area: Life with Autism
Julie A. Donnelly, Ph.D.
University of Missouri, Columbia