Hope Begins Here and Now

This story counting my experiences in the 13th Philippine National Autism Conference on 26-27 October 2013 was published in the Manila Bulletin on 11 November 2013, under the byline of Erlinda Koe, chair emeritus of the Autism Society Philippines. The edited version can be found both in the print and the online editions. For my readers, here is a copy of the unabridged and unedited story I wrote.

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There had been a lot of things that happened during those two days, but as an awesome autistic self-advocate, it has been more than empowering for me that I have been part of the Autism Society Philippines’ 13th Philippine National Autism Conference, just as it has been for everybody else there—parents, professionals, and fellow self-advocates.
The theme of the conference, “Hope for ‘A’ Nation,” was highly appropriate for what the conference had to offer, as it presented a diversity of perspectives. From lawmakers to experts in the field, to parents and individuals on the autism spectrum, the speakers and the panelists in the conference presented how it is to live with hope for autism, a vision that is continually unveiling itself.

On 26-27 October 2013, the MERALCO Multi-Purpose Hall was filled to the brim with hopefuls, as they anticipated the topics to be discussed. It was worth it, what with the topics and panels that have been discussed in the two days that parents, professionals, and even persons with autism gathered to glean vital information about autism and what is being done toward acceptance and inclusion for autistic people.

The conference featured Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, whose life with her son and grandson, both with autism, inspired her to push for access for justice for persons with disabilities; ASEAN Autism Network Chair Malai Othman, who exhorted going back to the grassroots level and focusing on enabling those with disabilities; and BUHAY Party-List Representative Irwin Tieng, who discussed how ASP’s advocacy motivated him to be an autism angel and push for rights of persons with autism and other disabilities. Cavite Governor Jonvic Remulla, who graced the second day of the conference, shared a message of hope on his journey with his daughter Stella, who has autism, and inspired him to be an advocate himself.

The efforts of the government in pushing for autism acceptance and inclusion were showcased as well. Mandaluyong City Mayor Benhur Abalos discussing how their implementation of community-based rehabilitation helped shape persons with autism and other disabilities to become fully-functional members of society, and how it inspired other local governments to follow suit. Former Ormoc City Mayor Beboy Codilla, himself a father of a child with autism, discussed what his government has done for individuals on the spectrum on the regional level.

On the experts’ perspective, Dr. Alexis Reyes discussed the DSM-V and the implications of this latest revision in diagnosing autism, while Dr. Cornelio Banaag discussed the issues that affect adults on the spectrum in terms of their well-being and health. Dr. Noel Vallesteros talked about oral and dental care for kids on the autism spectrum, and assured that dentists are friends and parents need to look on how well their kids fare in terms of oral health. Teachers Anna Cortez and Ana Rivera showcased therapies for autism, using the techniques of yoga and dance, respectively; while Sensei Vicente Rubio, himself on the autism spectrum, discussed the basics of mentoring young adults on the spectrum, and how he himself lived with autism.

What interested me, though, was Dr. Tony Dans’s discussion on the highly-controversial stem-cell therapy and its role as an autism therapy. As an anti-cure advocate myself, who believes that autism is not a disease to be cured and eradicated, but rather a difference to live with, the discussion of the topic itself normally made me uncomfortable. Dr. Dans, however, somehow dispelled my fears, as he objectively discussed the principles and ethics of such therapy, and that it has yet to be proven before it could ever be used.

On the perspective of the corporate world, Unilab Foundation’s Rhodora Fresnedi discussed how Project Inclusion have integrated autistic individuals to the workplace, and gave the experiences of fellow awesome Vico Cham, who is currently an employee at Unilab. Amor Maclang of the PR firm GeiserMaclang challenged everyone to advocate for autism and make people who have not been touched by autism touched by our advocacy.

The panel of parents and siblings of adults on the autism spectrum, composed of Arch. Cathy Cham, DIWA Party-List Representative Em Aglipay, Dr. Marnie Prudencio, and Mommy Marivic Rimano, and ASP Vice President Teacher Ces Sicam as moderator, discussed how they prepare themselves for the future that lies ahead of them and their children with autism. Media leaders also came together to discuss the agenda of autism in mainstream media and its role in shaping autism advocacy and the acceptance of people on the autism spectrum in Philippine society. The panel of media leaders were graced by GMA Network executive Annette Gozon-Abrogar, advocacy filmmaker Mirana Medina, ANAK TV Chair Mag Hatol, and Manila Bulletin editor Ivy Mendoza, and led by ABS-CBN broadcaster Karen Davila, herself a mother to David, fellow awesome.

The panel on the employment sector, who discussed the opportunities and the value of employing autistic people in a variety of jobs, were composed of Verlie Dizon, Mann Hann senior manager; Regina de Leon, mom to fast-food staff and fellow awesome Paco; Gian Paolo Feranil, plan checker at Torsten Calvi and fellow awesome; and Teachers Iris Gaballo and Archie David from the Independent Living and Learning Centre.

But what struck me the most is the panel of fellow awesomes on the spectrum, composed of ASP Dreamgirl Danica Escasiñas, Hopewell Integrated School staff Paul Garcia, performing-arts student Clarence Cruz, and IBM’s HR specialist Yanna Aragon. Led by Teacher My Sorongon, they discussed their own journeys as self-advocates, pushing in their own right for the rights and acceptance of autistic people. And being the passionate self-advocate that I was, I asked my fellows in the house to stand up and be recognized by the sea of parents and professionals.

It was such an exhilarating experience to be part of this conference, and together with fellow autistic guys, whom I shall call Team Awesomeness, there is hope for autism. And it doesn’t stop at the conference. Hope begins here, and hope begins now.

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As part of celebrating the pride and awesomeness of autistic people, Autistic BigBro will be introducing Team Awesomeness, a section of this blog site where I will be featuring one awesome achiever for the month. More details to follow.

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