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Michael Tolleson: Changing the Way We think of Autism

by | Aug 24, 2016

When you hear the word autism, what do you think? Do you think of your son or daughter with autism? Do you think about yourself? Do you think about your husband, wife, friend, or colleague? Wouldn’t it be nice if the thinking could stop there?

Unfortunately it doesn’t. There are other thoughts that emerge when people hear the word autism.  Often negative, they minimize, belittle, dehumanize, put down, and pity the person with autism or their family.  It might be the not so subtle question ‘Can he talk (or smile, engage)?’, or the blanket pity statement, “Oh, that must be so hard!” or maybe it’s the way people try to categorize those with autism into “high” or “low” functioning. It might be the latest offensive media portal of what having autism means or says about autistic people and their family? I won’t even touch the ‘cure’ debate that makes many, especially parents, feel like they are potentially failing their loved one because they haven’t found the elusive ‘cure’ that others have allegedly found.

Being a clinician, I have become so aware of the predominate messages about autism and how they affect the families and people that I treat. Rather than dwell on the negative, I like to create change. I feel so blessed to be a part of a practice who values the autism community and know that these portrayals of autism don’t represent many people with autism. Each year we seek to counter these often endless negative messages with our own message of love.

Recently someone said to me, “When I heard about the Love & Autism Conference, I didn’t think it was for my family or my child.  I heard Love & Autism and thought romantic love. I’m not in the place to think about my child and dating.”  For parents of young children, I can’t blame them for this thinking. But I would have been remiss if I didn’t clarify the purpose of Love & Autism for this parent.

Love takes many forms: parent-child love, romantic love, sibling love, friendship love, and self-love. It’s self-love that many of our speakers, especially Michael Tolleson, embody.

Love & Autism is just that, it’s a conference with the intention of loving better for those that have a loved one with autism. It’s about gathering a group of speakers, both those with and without autism, whose messages and stories counter the negative mainstream commentary. It’s about coming together to re-educate, enlighten, and support our autism community from a place of respect and valuing because when we do just that, our loved ones walk in a world that is more than tolerant, it’s a world of opportunity.

Those of you who attended our 2015 Love & Autism Conference remember Michael Tolleson. He was the genius artist who created a massive 60×72 inch snowy night landscape in 35 minutes. Yes, you read that correctly. A huge masterpiece in just 35 minutes. If you missed it, you can watch him work here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENI6iSCJ2-0

How does he do it? Well to quote Michael himself “Examining my ability to paint; every stroke is instinctual since I have no training, and I rely on the use of the huge amount of stored information my Aspergers mind has observed and retained.” Michael views his ability to paint as a gift that is made possible by his autism.

Having been lucky enough to chat with Michael during last year’s conference I got to know him just a little. Michael is someone who is very easy to like.  Maybe this is because he radiates warmth and acceptance. Maybe it’s because he is eager to help others see the positive in themselves and their abilities. It could also be that Michael encourages us to see how our world becomes more beautiful when we attempt to see people as having a strong light within them, not as damaged.

But one thing that I appreciate most about Michael is his strong voice and loving acceptance of his autism. Michael is one of the people for whom we use the term ‘autistic person’ because, to paraphrase Michael: ‘My autism is part of who I am.  I don’t know who I would be without it and I don’t know if I could do what I do without my autism.’

We, the hosts of Love & Autism, feel like Michael’s voice and perspective is a much needed one in the community. He likes and respects who he is, including his autism. Could you imagine living in a world where this is the message? Wouldn’t it be lovely?!

For all of the families I’m lucky enough to support, one of my goals for them is the development of a healthy autism identity. Three years of Love & Autism has taught me that a healthy autism identity is not only possible, but necessary.

Want to be surrounded by people who share the same values about love and autism that you do? Want to hear from speakers who are elevating the way we communicate and view what it means to be autistic? Do you need to feel more hope about autism? Do you need to hear a better message? If your answer is ‘yes’ to even one of these questions, then you should attend this year’s Love & Autism Conference on October 8 & 9 at Liberty Station. Click here to register!

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Why this price point?
Our conference offers an honorarium and travel accommodations for all speakers! With 80%of our speaker identifying as on the spectrum, this is our commitment to fair wages for people with disabilities.

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