Alcalá Park is abuzz with the activity of visiting intellectuals and compassionate professionals this week as the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) hosts two impactful conferences through its Autism Institute and the Character Development Center.
The Autism Institute’s goal is to develop and disseminate research to support autistic individuals and their families. Dr. Anne Donnellan, director of the institute, expressed her enthusiasm for the June 27-29 conference, saying, “We add another link in our connection to the community when we host this summer conference. We bring peace and justice to a population that generally doesn’t receive a lot of either.”
The conference, which attracted 250 people, began with a talk given by Donnellan and Martha Leary at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice on Monday. They encouraged listeners to reexamine assumptions about the behaviors of autistic people. People might behave in unusual ways because that is the way their bodies are organized. They shared a story about an autistic boy who frequently spun around. This behavior might be perceived as odd, but when interviewed about his frequent twirling, he revealed that it allowed him to regulate his emotions. He revealed that he spun one way when he felt that things were too “black.” Then to feel better, he spun the other way to take in more “blue” and restore balance to his body. This is one example of respectfully understanding and accepting rather than changing an autistic person’s behaviors.
Donnellan cited Ari Ne’eman’s talk as an upcoming highlight of the conference. Ne’eman (pictured, top right) is the founder of The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and a member of President Obama’s National Committee on Disability. He will give a presentation on Wednesday from 1:30 to 3 p.m. about autistic people’s need to join in the disability policy conversation in Washington D.C. Donnellan said the slogan, “No talk about us without us,” will underscore his discussion.
The Character Development Center is based on the principal that morality is not automatic; conscientious efforts must be made to help develop the values necessary for moral decision making and conduct. Dr. Ed Deroche is the director of the center. The two-day 15th annual Character Matters Conference, which concluded on Tuesday, June 28, was held in Mother Rosalie Hill Hall.
Emalyn Leppard ‘98, who teaches at Montgomery Middle School and was named Middle School Teacher of the Year by the San Diego Unified School District, opened Monday’s program. In her engaging talk, “Being a Role Model: The Difference Between ‘Acting’ and ‘Being’ for Real!” she shared her methods for building good character in students.
One challenge she faces with her middle school students is making academic achievement cool instead of nerdy. A solution she found is having themed assemblys to encourage and celebrate academic achievement. Taking pictures of students who score highly on tests and posting them on the classroom walls has also been effective; she mentioned some students are so proud they bring their friends to the classroom to show off their picture.
Leppard also encourages her students to think about the image they present to the world and the people they are becoming as they get ready to leave for high school. She asks them to think about how they dress, how they talk to authority, what type of friends they associate with. Leppard said, “I want my students to know that whatever challenges they face, it is critical that they learn to make good choices.”
SOLES Dean Paula Cordeiro said the significance of holding conferences “is vitally important in order to connect to the community. These conferences offer ongoing professional learning opportunities for alumni. For the greater community, these conferences offer an opportunity to come in and learn about the given topic.”
Both conferences have the spirit of the university’s mission: expanding knowledge and preparing leaders for ethical and compassionate service.
— Ellie Faulkner ‘11