Pictures at an Exposition: Recounting the Autism Society 43rd Annual Conference
August 15, 2012
This year, I was very fortunate to get my “big break” with The Autism Channel, a 24-hour, on-demand streaming service that will bring autism-spectrum content into the homes of families around the world. Traditionally, in my capacity as host of our flagship program, I Am Autistic, I interview professionals, parents, and people on the spectrum within the friendly confines of our television studio. After handling everything my producers had thrown at me to date, my final assignment for our first season was to go on location to the Autism Society National Conference, where I would conduct one last tour de force of interviews, mostly on the fly, and oh, if I wouldn’t mind, maybe write about the experience for our newsletter. Post-production on the interviews is wrapping up. The latter follows below.
July 28, 2012
After three productive days and four sleep-deprived nights, I have just flown back from the Autism Society’s 43rd National Conference in San Diego. If I were some Henny Youngman type, this would be the point at which I add “and boy, are my arms tired.” Alas, I am not, and indeed, all four limbs are in pretty good condition for having withstood a jam-packed, four-hour flight. But if I were to localize my fatigue, I would have to point—emphatically—right to the old grey matter, which spent the week banking critical information like it hasn’t since my days in psychology classrooms, firing in ways I never thought it could fire, and working double-overtime to make sure that I didn’t tragicomically lose my balance on a piece of training equipment, laying waste to some poor fellow vendor’s elaborately constructed exhibit.
Not that I’m complaining, by any means. I’ve become mindful as of late that even my most effusive praise is liable to take the tone of highly exacting kvetching; I blame this on a family proclivity for taking a hundred words to say what ten could have said. It calls to mind the old autism-spectrum admonition about how when people ask “How are you?” they’re not really asking you to tell them how you are. (Then again, note the sprawling tendencies of journalism with the birth of the internet’s infinite column space and subsequent death of the editor: maybe we notoriously non-self-editing folks on the spectrum were the vanguard all along). Simply rest assured that my brain is tired in the best kind of way, the kind that follows worthy exertion and accomplishment.
While the Autism Society’s convention also featured a wealth of compelling keynotes and seminars about which I’m sure much will be written, the real bread and butter of this event was its convention floor. This was where the Autism Channel team spent the majority of its time. This being my first visit, I had no idea what to expect from an autism convention. It turned out that at first glance, it looked a lot like any other trade show or expo that comes to your town. The fact is that whether assembled to exhibit model trains, furniture, autism products and services, or anything else under the sun, there’s a superficial sameness to these things that can’t be avoided. Infrastructurally, you’d have seen the same vast ballroom packed with the same curtain-partitioned booths that dutifully serve every expo there can be. At any show, there will be fascinating exhibits from the technological forefront contrasting with the one booth that for unexplained reasons never got set up in the first place; the Autism Society’s event was no exception. And though you’d have had a great time in San Diego, the climate-controlled convention floor had that familiar everywhere-and-nowhere feel, the kind that gives you a twinge of sympathetic despair when a conventioneer is recommending a terrific book from a prior trade show, but can’t remember if she picked it up at the one in Indianapolis or the one in New Orleans.
The fundamental difference between this expo and any other, of course, is the certainty I achieved that the people doing business here were doing the capital-letters Right Thing for the Right Reasons. Though these booths don’t rent themselves, mind you, this was not mere commerce for the sake of commerce. An exhibitor at a trade show for office supplies isn’t there to improve the world. He’s there to sell office supplies. Conversely, at the risk of sounding perilously trite, the vendors’ involvement with the Autism Society’s convention wasn’t just business, but personal. The wonderful thing about autism’s failure to discriminate is that it brings disparate people with disparate talents to one common and noble cause, touching not only households but careers, too. A financial planner has a child who is diagnosed with autism. Soon, that financial planner is managing not just anybody’s money, but specializing in the unique fiscal demands upon fellow families raising children on the spectrum. Parents and siblings channel hard work and ingenuity into novel toys and games to reach family members they thought unreachable; now they share their products with others in hopes that they can feel the same breakthroughs. A stand-up comedian finds not just his life changed by a daughter with autism but his schtick, too, crafting a one-man show that makes its audiences laugh and cry in equal amounts. No one came to San Diego to make a buck off a niche market without earning the altruism and empathy that attend the years and years spent touched by autism. If anybody had tried, we’d have chased them off the floor.
So what a pleasure it was to meet so many people who, like The Autism Channel, convened to present their labors of love to a community that far too seldom finds itself both physically and ideologically Here In One Place. If, for one reason or another, you could not attend this wonderful event, The Autism Channel will be here for you, having documented as much of the convention as time allowed for a special “season finale” for The Autism Channel’s first wave of programming. Between stints manning our own booth to spread the word about our upcoming service, I had the opportunity to interview many vendors and guests at their exhibits, asking questions, learning, and even partaking in demonstrations on your behalf. You will get to see these interviews, which substitute I Am Autistic’s longform one-on-one structure for a diverse and fast-paced sampler, simulating the “so many exhibits, so little time” feel you surely would have had at this outstanding convention.
Back at our own booth, the other half of the convention experience was just as mentally stimulating, as The Autism Channel personally spoke with and presented excerpts of its upcoming programming to a large number of parents, siblings, educators, medical professionals, individuals with autism themselves, and virtually every remaining category of people somehow touched by the autism spectrum. Suffice to say that a large group of people who have come to network with one another in a short period of time would not seem to be a “home game” for a person on the spectrum. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful and rewarding experience getting to know so many of the devoted people involved with our community, and I should like to feel that I rose to the occasion. It’s not often that I’m called upon to be social. By devising a copywriting career that consists mostly of working in the shadows of sales departments, being the person behind the people, not having to be social is kind of by design. But the convention brought me out of those shadows and into an unyielding fluorescence that was as much figurative as literal, and after meeting the people I had the pleasure to meet, I’m a better person for it.
We hope you’ll enjoy our account of the Autism Society National Conference as much as we enjoyed presenting it to you. For those who were in attendance, thank you for putting up with our roving cameras and incessant questioning. For those who couldn’t make it, perhaps this will persuade you to make the trip to the 2013 engagement amid the lovely hills and golden bridges of Pittsburgh. For the first time I can remember in a long, long time, I actually managed to travel light, avoiding the fees and frustrations of checked baggage with just my laptop and duffel bag. Getting my clothes laundered and my computer plugged back in will be perfunctory, a breeze. It’s the mental unpacking that’s going to keep me busy.
Daniel Heinlein appeared in the Autism Society’s 2012 Autism Awareness Month PSA, and now blogs for autism-society.org about his work with The Autism Channel, where he engages in friendly interrogation on his interview program I Am Autistic. When not on set, Dan can be found running, cooking, writing ad copy, or agonizing over the shortcomings of his beloved Chicago Blackhawks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.