AP NEWS

Autism conference focuses on social-emotional learning, sexual health, service dogs and more

May 3, 2019

Mashantucket — As Dr. Peg Donohue reflected on the approach her nephew’s school took to his autism, she describes it as, “How do we help him deal with rejection? How do we help him self-soothe? How do we make him feel OK with what’s happening?”

Donohue’s sister would call her in tears and ask what the school was doing to address how other kids behave.

Donohue — assistant professor in the Counselor Education & Family Therapy Department at Central Connecticut State University — said the solutions lie in creating inclusive environments and methods of instruction, and not putting boundaries on students.

She cites initiatives and programs like Unified Sports, Best Buddies clubs and having a “buddy bench,” where kids who want to be approached and included can sit. She also pointed to Unicorn Theatre in London, which holds “Relaxed Performances” that involve sensory adjustments and a “chill-out room” for quiet space.

Donohue was one of two keynote speakers at The Light House’s 13th annual Autism Education Conference, held Friday at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. There were 150 attendees, including teachers, therapists, speech pathologists, graduate students and parents of children on the autism spectrum.

The other keynote speaker was Robin Fox, whose program SocialEyes Together is focused on improvisation exercises, mindfulness and social cognition.

Commenting that “we know that our kids on the spectrum love rules,” Fox said the three rules of improv are that everybody onstage is a genius, there are no mistakes and all must abide by the principle of “yes, and,” meaning a participant must accept any premise and expand.

Fox said that social improv benefits kids with autism by increasing flexibility along with awareness of social cues.

In one breakout session, Katie Hanley of disabilities service provider Oak Hill discussed sexual health and healthy relationships, given that people with intellectual developmental disabilities, or IDD, are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted.

She discussed the lines between family, friends, acquaintances, helpers and strangers.

“There’s a lot of emphasis put on friends, so what ends up happening is we start throwing a lot of people into that category” to boost the self-esteem of those with IDD, Hanley said. But she said it’s harmful to blur lines such that there are only friends or strangers, considering abuse is more likely to come from someone familiar to the victim.

“This population needs to know what sexual abuse is, and they need to know that it can happen by someone you know and trust,” Hanley said. “That is really heartbreaking, but I promise you it is really important.”

She told another heartbreaking story: One girl was saying for months that someone keeps touching her change purse, but nobody knew she was being abused because they didn’t know she was using “change purse” as a euphemism.

Hanley used this as an example of why people with IDD should know and use the real names of body parts. She said other important information is puberty education, how to prevent pregnancy, what sexually transmitted infections are, sexual acts that are against the law and what to do about sexting.

Next door to Hanley’s talk, the mood was lighter as Katy Harrison Ostroff of NEADS World Class Service Dogs talked about how service dogs can benefit kids with autism — and showed the attendees multiple pictures of puppies in training.

With all the talk in the news about emotional support animals, Ostroff stressed that those animals are not trained to perform a specific task, while service dogs are.

She said that for kids with autism, service dogs can build confidence, help them cope with change, teach body language and teach empathy. The dog might rest his head on the child’s lap to calm the child down and bark on command to communicate with a parent.

“It is not a family pet,” Ostroff said. “The whole work is going to be on the child and that dog, and the parent as the facilitator.”

e.moser@theday.com