Conference Call: Day 1 of the National Autism Conference

Staff members and interns from Penn State Outreach will be blogging from the National Autism Conference at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel throughout the week. The conference, which averages about 2,500 participants, features experts in autism, educators, autism advocates, people with autism and their families. Today's blog focuses on the Children's Institute.

By Bianca Barr

The second floor of The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel deceptively looks like a place where adults would fill up empty rooms to attend conference sessions. Folks with name tags are manning tables. Closed conference room doors let you know something is going on. But a closer inspection reveals something special: the rooms have been transformed into safe havens for children with autism and siblings whose parents are attending the National Autism Conference all week.

The Children’s Institute has been a part of the conference for several years. It’s a place that offers an on-site, structured and fun environment for the duration of the conference. There’s space for 100 participants and the children and teens are separated mostly by age group. It’s available to Pennsylvania families and is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Bureau of Special Education.

The Sensory Room is decorated with hand-drawn cutouts of hearts, clouds and clovers and lots of colorful teddy bears. An orange and purple bounce house is buzzing in the corner of the conference room -- and a playful young girl is circling around on light feet, shrieking with joyous laughter. A staff member interacts with her, keeping a watchful eye on the situation. Two boys are playing with snake-like tubes made of nylon. They’re hiding inside the cylinders, which just happen to be the perfect size for 5-year-old boys. This group will stay in the Sensory Room for about 30 minutes, and then rotate back to their assigned classroom for more fun and games.

This is not like school. It’s more like camp. The kids get to play outside, do arts and crafts and even participate in yoga and stretching. Some of the older children will star in a play that debuts on Thursday. They will spend the next few days learning their lines and building the set.

Trained professionals from the Central Intermediate Unit #10 coordinate the Children’s Institute, and volunteers as young as 14 can offer their services to help assist in the classrooms.

These rooms are inviting -- elaborately decorated to meet a theme of cartoons and comic books. The children are engaged -- playing Monopoly in one room, building blocks in another. And their parents can focus on the important sessions of the day, knowing that their children have the best of care all week long.

Last Updated November 18, 2010