Kate E. Reynolds

  • Presentation at the Autism Conference in Larissa, Greece

    When 'Sexuality and Severe Autism' was published in 2011 I was contacted by two Greek psychologists, Ioannis Voskopoulos and Lambrini Ioannou. They work in the field of autism in Athens. From there, Ioannis and Lambrini endorsed the Tom and Ellie sexuality and safety series of story books and kept in contact with me. Several months ago they asked my opinion on a proposed conference about sexuality and autism, which I gave. From that interaction came an invitation for me to speak at the bi-annual autism conference, this year in Larissa, north of Greece. With an audience of occupational therapists, special needs teachers, psychologists and speech and language therapists, of course, I wanted to contribute.

    I learned that the organising committee was run by Eri Kalogeropoylou, who is the mother of an adult man with severe autism and she is also the president of the organisation. With limited resources and the economic crisis in Greece most of the speakers were not charging a speaker's fee. Apparently the admission fee for participants at the conference was to be used for the construction of residential houses for adults with severe forms of autism.

    Last Thursday I flew to Athens and took the four to five hour train journey to Larissa. Waiting on my bed at the hotel in the centre of lively Larissa was a box of Greek food delicacies beautifully wrapped. I attended the evening lecture about technology and individualising support to people with autism by Dr Herrera. The highlight of the evening was watching a band called AUKESTRA whose members are mainly autistic and whose moto is 'Don't be average, be amazing'. More than that, the expectation from most of the people I discussed this with, was that the members would have so-called 'higher functioning' autism. So much for labels! Two of the band members had to be supported onto the stage and two others clearly had labels of intellectual disability. Their founder and co-ordinator, Jack Dixon, has worked in the field for over 20 years in and around Sunderland and he also plays in the band. And, boy, could they play! Listening to their cover versions of the likes of George Michael and Kylie Minogue, neither I nor anyone with me was struck by the patronising feeling that they were doing well for people with certain impairments; on the contrary, they were simply a good band.

    The following day I gave a presentation about relationship and sex education for children and young people with autism and intellectual disabilities (learning difficulties). As I stood on stage, I could see in a glassed room by my side, the interpreter. As I spoke she translated. In my naivety I'd thought I would have to say a line, wait for translation, then speak again. Oh no, I was told just to speak - she had the fantastic ability to translate as I spoke without my having to hesitate.

    Time was tight so I couldn't say everything I'd prepared but it went down well - it was worth the worrying of the previous few days. My colleagues, Ioannis and Lambrini then spoke about couples where autism was an issue, using footage to illustrate the key points. We finished and took questions from an interested audience. The curve ball was a question about my opinion of a family in which the parents had paid for their adult son with intellectual disabilties to have the services of a sex worker. There's always a curve ball.

    From this presentation has come an invitation to design and give a workshop in Corfu next year and to return for the next autism conference in two years time. I also hope to work with my psychologist colleagues in Greece on an ongoing basis.

    None of this would be possible without the support of the University of Bristol Colston Research Travel award which funded much of the travel and the committee in Greece for funding my accommodation and travel. My colleagues, Ioannis and Lambrini also gave a selection of Greek foods to bring back, including something (tea, I'm told) that looked like I might be running the risk of being prosecuted for possession of an illegal substance!

    My thanks to everyone involved in making this conference trip possible.

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Kate E Reynolds - blogging

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