• FEBRUARY 24 & 25, 2018


Join autistic students, self-advocates and their allies as they come together to discuss ideas around revolutionary education…

Dr. Edlyn Pena

Building Capacity to Include Students with Sensory Movement Differences in Schools and Colleges (Keynote Presentation)

This presentation explores research findings on promising practices that schools and colleges can enact to support the educational success of autistic students who type and spell to communicate.
Second Presentation:
Preparing Students who Use AAC for College
This presentation outlines evidenced-based practices to prepare students with disabilities and communication challenges for a successful college transition.
Presenter (both talks): Dr. Edlyn Peña is an Associate Professor of Higher Education Leadership and Co-Director of the Autism and Communication Center at California Lutheran University (CLU). As an award-winning researcher, public speaker, and appointed member of the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee since 2015, Dr. Peña is highly active in autism and disability discussions at a national level. She engages in research that contributes knowledge about preparing students with autism for higher education. She is also passionate about providing access to alternative forms of communication and inclusion to students with autism.

Jackson Patton, High School Student, Freshman at Connections High School

Soar Above Habits and Take Control

I will teach to increase understanding of individual differences in motor challenges. Mine is lack of control over my mouth. A helpful teaching method to help unreliable talkers is using letterboards.

Presenter: Jackson Patton, high school student, freshman at Connections High School.

I am autistic having to spell my true thoughts. The most frustrating part is not typing, but having so many people think my spoken words are reliable. I am here to change ideas about how my mouth works.

Heather Patton, parent to an autistic teenager

More than Meets the Ear

As a parent I had to actually listen to my son and not just hear his spoken words. The journey from thinking all that he had to say was limited to the words that flowed from his mouth to understanding his true depth.

Heather describes herself as an impatient person who talks and walks fast. She says her son is her best teacher as he is always forcing her to learn and grow. Never one to sit by the wayside, she has been involved in all of her sons therapies and schools, probably more than anyone wanted her to be, including her son. After years of following his lead and listening to his spoken words, things have been turned upside down by his exposure to a methodology called RPM and use of letter boards.

Roxy Cuadra, Kelsey Aughey, Susan Lisenby, Educators

Checking Presumptions At the Door!

In this talk, these three educators will talk about how their own presumptions and misconceptions shifted as they learned more about sensory movement differences and how that influenced the way their students learn and communicate. Join them as they share effective strategies to engage and inspire all types of learners and sensory motor styles in the classroom.
Presenters: Roxy Cuadra, Kelsey Aughey, Susan Lisenby (Educators)
Roxy Cuadra is a clinician and Curriculum Specialist at GKTC and former lead teacher at the Hirsch Academy. Kelsey Aughey is the Senior Letterboard Specialist and co-teacher of the Mid Day class at the Hirsch Academy. Susan Lisenby is a lead teacher in the Mid Day Program at the Hirsch Academy. All of these educators all agree their greatest teachers are their students, who inspire them to think out of the box and who remind them to keep digging and stretching with new ideas and strategies. They look forward to discussing these new ideas with you.

Noah Seback, Graciela Lotharius, Students

Supporting Quirky Bodies and Great Minds
in the Classroom

Autistics with non-speaking mouths have the toughest time making their quirky bodies connect with their amazing minds. In the classroom this is easily misunderstood. This presentation will help teachers learn how to work with this kind of student. We will give hands-on strategies for supporting regulation and learning and for overall success in the classroom.
Presenters:Noah Seback, Graciela Lotharius (Students)
Graciela Lotharius: Graciela is an advocate that is being led to start putting herself more in the public eye. She is an advocate for herself and for others like her in the world. Noah Seback: I am an eighteen year old student who happens to be a non speaking Autistic. I have become able to access education through use of the letter board, yet not able to at the the same time, due to the educational system’s inability to shift their paradigm of Autism. I am denied academic experience because my body requires greater support to communicate and function in the classroom. It is my mission to bring change to this paradigm, starting here in Atlanta where I call home. It is never too late to change-for me, for you, for the world. I’m only one voice of many.

Michele Kukler, Educator

Make It Happen: Honoring Neurodiverse Learners in High School and Beyond

How can we honor our students with sensory movement differences by building programs that both embrace and challenge them? How can we be intentional about creating goals and achieving them together? And how can we evaluate progress and effectiveness in this progressive era of education? This presentation will include one educator’s stories of successes and failures, specific strategies for implementation, and heartfelt inspiration for YOU to make it happen.

Presenter: Michele Kukler is fiercely passionate about turning ideas into action and empowering young people to reach their full potential. Michele was a classroom and community-based educator in the public school system before finding her way to the Hirsch Academy, where students are truly loved and their differences celebrated. Michele now serves as Instructional Coordinator and Lead Teacher at the innovative Connections School of Atlanta and wants to tell anyone who will listen about its revolutionary mission and life-changing work.

Tristan Draycott, Student

The Right to an Education is the Right to Dream

This talk is about never giving up on your dreams, no matter how high you’re aspiring to go. You have to believe in yourself, you need people to believe in you. Then you can accomplish anything.
Presenter: Tristan Draycott (Student)
I am a highschool student with aspirations of graduate school. Education is very important to me. I believe everyone, speech-producing or not, is entitled to a high quality education that allows them to achieve their academic and professional goals. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my experience with you at this conference.

Rishi Jena, Student

Inclusion and Spelling to Communicate in Public School

Education is life saving for me, like oxygen for my soul. I want to be educated with other regular kids, regular kids enjoy more freedom than autistic students. They have more freedom to express their voice and get their opinions heard. I will talk about this and my desire for all teachers and fellow students to honor my intelligence and of my fundamental rights for a fair education as being offered to all regular students of my age group.
Presenter – Rishi Jena (Student)
Rishi is a Middle school student at South Forsyth Middle School where he has completed one year with access to age appropriate curriculum in a typical class setting for Math and 1:1 for other subjects. He is also part of middle school classes in Chorus and PE with typical peers. Rishi is using letterboards in public school with his speech therapist and completing age appropriate lessons daily. Rishi is advocating for more inclusion classes this school year and also transitioning from letter board to keyboard in the school environment.

Gabriel Stettner-Auerbach, Alexandra Davis, Students

Real Friendships Between Autistics

Presenters: My name is Gabriel Stettner-Auerbach, and I am a sophomore at Connections School of Atlanta. One of my goals in life is to make sure speaking and nonspeaking people are able to talk to each other. I want to eliminate all ableism, and make the world a better place.
Alexandra Davis: I am a proud, intelligent woman who is also autistic. My purpose is to speak out for those who can’t. I will challenge your way of thinking so listen up.

Jennifer Griffith, Parent/Educator

Rising Above and Beyond the Look

This presentation was inspired by a shared vision between mother and daughter – to educate other children with the hopes of altering misconceptions about those with sensory movement differences. Jennifer will present an experience she and Julia shared with 72 neurotypical students that helped demonstrate what Julia has long known about herself–that her differences are a gift.They make her strong and fierce yet sensitive and compassionate. And they give her the vision and self-confidence to teach others to “look harder” beyond what’s on the surface to find the talented soul and loving heart within. Jennifer and Julia look forward to sharing their story.
Presenter: Jennifer Griffith’s earliest role model was her grandmother, an educator for 50 years with a giant heart for inspiring children to use their gifts to reach their goals. Just like her Grandma, Jennifer only wanted to be a teacher. Jennifer has taught at Westminster for 16 years and has received various awards given to educators who demonstrate exemplary work in the classroom. When Jennifer became a mother to Julia in 2008 she received her biggest gift to share with the world. Julia is now a fourth grade student at The Hirsch Academy and her vision, passion, and ambition for her and her peers’ voices to be heard and their boundless brilliance and potential to be recognized, humble and inspire Jennifer. Next to her beloved Grandma, Julia is her greatest teacher.

Dana Johnson, Ph.D., M.S., OTR/L, Kelley Combs, M.S. OTR/L, CTRS

From Chaotic to Organized: How to Support Disorganized Bodies in the Classroom

This presentation will provide an overview of practical strategies as they relate to communication, functional movement and accessing the curriculum in the classroom. Additionally, video case examples from the school environment with goals to support motor planning, reliable communication and functional movement will be used to support participant understanding. Finally, we will discuss effective tools for parents, professionals and educators to use both at home and in the classroom environment.
Dana Johnson, Ph.D., M.S., OTR/L is an occupational therapist and the Head of School at InterPLAY Learning Academy in Tarpon Springs, FL. InterPLAY supports students with varying disabilities to reach their academic and career goals. Dana is passionate about advocating for student independence and autonomy and educating the community on topics related to presuming competence and inclusion. Kelley Combs, M.S. OTR/L, CTRS Kelley is the occupational therapist at InterPLAY Learning Academy. She works with both educators and the students to bring purposeful movement and functional fitness to the classroom.

Payam, Student

Rethinking Autism and Therapeutic Approaches

The power of believing in all individual abilities and desires to be a contributing member in society is essential to being a support for families. This presentation will shed more light on how shifting perspectives can benefit all parties. Listening to autistics will give you so much more to think about.
Presenter: Payam (Student)
Payam is a young adult who takes advantage of every moment life provides. Presently he works with many gifted supporters that believe in his full potential. As the Persian meaning of Payam represents, he has an important message to share. Payam would like to thank all of you for taking this weekend to open your hearts to these silent champions.

Kathleen Berger

Understanding and Appreciating the Cognitive Motor and Sensory Processing Differences of our Students

This presentation integrates recent research on developmental dyspraxia, motor learning and brain connectivity differences with autobiographical accounts and the cumulative clinical experience of multidisciplinary therapists. Kathleen will answer questions, from a neurological perspective, such as why some people with sensory movement differences might pace or jump or wave their hands. Or, why some are particularly attached to certain objects. Answering these questions will provide the foundation for practical supports that can be used at school and at home.
Presenter: Kathleen Berger
Kathleen is a physical therapist and the mother of a child, Kris, who did not speak words and had severe regulation challenges. She is the director of a therapy intensive respite program for children with autism and their families – Kris’ Camp/Therapy Intensive Programs and most recently received her PhD in Rehabilitation science, with a focus on cognitive motor and sensory processing differences. Her current project is developing continuing education courses for therapists, educators and parents as well as live interactive webinars.

Reece Blankenship, John McCarty, Self-Advocates

Let’s Change the Trends!

Many people on the autism spectrum face problems with poor motor skills, balance and coordination. Because of this, many autistics typically lead an inactive life, increasing their risk of obesity. US teenagers with autism are more than twice as likely to be obese than adolescents who are neurotypical. Type two diabetes is on the rise for all children, but in even greater numbers for those on the autism spectrum. Reece and John would like to encourage others to incorporate fitness and regular exercise into their daily routine and will give tips and tricks to work toward a healthier lifestyle in order to change these disturbing trends.
Reece Blankenship is the founder and inspiration behind ReClif. ReClif is a fitness based therapy and community center that is based on the belief that every individual, no matter their differences or perceived limitations should have a place that encourages and assists them in their pursuit to be the best that they can be. At 22 years old, Reece is working hard to make up for 19 years of non-communication. His goal is to help others like him, challenge the assumption of incompetence placed on them by having bodies that do not comply with their minds. Reece believes that everyone, especially those with motor challenges, should harness the benefits that come from regular exercise and engaging activities. John McCarty is 22 years old and has been an avid participant in exercise all his life. His current passion is the elliptical. Over the years he has participated in tae kwon do, yoga, rowing, biking, kayaking, walking and swimming. He, like Reece, believes in harnessing the benefits of regular exercise.

Casey DePriest, MT-BC, Tsz-Hei Fatima Chan, MME, MT-BC

Creating Optimal Rhythms: Unlocking the Potential of Nonspeaking Students through Neurologic Music Therapy and Movement

This presentation will offer an overview of the innovative therapeutic day school model currently available through Optimal Rhythms / ACCESS Academy in Newburgh, Indiana, that is challenging many parents, therapists, and educators to “rethink” autism. Participants will explore the movement and sensory differences of autism and learn innovative supports for more functional movement, sensory regulation, and reliable communication in individuals on the spectrum with complex communication challenges. This model and these support strategies are proving to change the forecast of educational outcomes for students who are often misunderstood and underestimated due to their difficulty demonstrating what they were learning. This presentation will include videos, pictures, and demonstrations of techniques specifically developed for this student population.
Casey DePriest, MT-BC, is the Founder of Optimal Rhythms, Head of School for ACCESS Academy, and CEO of Integrative Music Therapy in Newburgh, Indiana. Casey has been a board-certified music therapist, specializing in ASD for over 20 years. Casey presents at local, regional, and national conferences and provides consultation and trainings to school districts, medical professionals, first responders, parents, and community members. Casey’s team will be hosting their 4th Annual Rethinking Autism Conference in April, 2018.
Tsz-Hei Fatima Chan, MME, MT-BC, is a certified Neurologic Music Therapist (NMT). She holds a master’s degree in Music Education with an emphasis in Music Therapy from The University of Kansas, and dual bachelor degrees in Music Therapy and Violin Performance from the University of Evansville. Fatima has presented institutes, concurrent sessions, and poster presentations at the national and regional conferences of the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

Laura Nadine: Music Teacher/Parent/Self-advocate

Not diagnosed with Autism until age 26, Laura has adapted to life using her own approaches which she now uses to help other people with autism. She will be celebrating her 25th year as a music teacher in 2018, and is the single parent of 2 teens. She is the winner of many awards, including 2 state titles for her performance on violin and her compositions which she released on her first album Chasing Shadows. She is a published author, I am Snamuh and Puzzles for Angie, a public speaker, and posts regularly on her blog at LauraNadine.net. She also gives consultations for families of children with Autism, and is the team photographer for the Leaside Flames Novice Red in Toronto. Laura says, “Autism is a weight when placed on my shoulders, but a pedestal when placed at my feet. Overcoming is the architect of life.” We are thrilled Laura Nadine will be our MC and panel moderator for this weekend event.

Janine Abalos, B.A Educator, Growing Kids Therapy Center, GKTC ACTS Endorsed Practitioner

Elizabeth Vosseller, MA, CCC-SLP Speech-Language Pathologist; Director Growing Kids Therapy Cente

Perspectives on Inclusion

While working to support the inclusion of nonspeaking students in general education it is important to consider the perspectives of various stakeholders: parents, teachers, specialists, administrators, communication partners, and of course the nonspeaking individual. In this presentation, we will discuss the challenges, accommodations, and successes reported by stakeholders and suggest ways to create more inclusive learning for individuals with motor and sensory differences.
Janine Abalos, B.A Educator, Growing Kids Therapy Center, GKTC ACTS Endorsed Practitioner Janine attended the University of Virginia and earned an undergraduate degree in Psychology and in Cognitive Science with a concentration in Linguistics. Janine’s academic interest in cognitive science and her love for kids have melded into a passion for equipping and supporting students at GKTC with skills to #S2C, Spell to Communicate, via low-tech and high-tech AAC. She is a firm believer in inclusion, and as an educator, she values the principles of Universal Design for Learning. Elizabeth Vosseller, MA, CCC-SLP Speech-Language Pathologist; Director Growing Kids Therapy Center Elizabeth has been a practicing speech-language pathologist for 23 years with a focus on autism and complex communication needs. Elizabeth is the director of Growing Kids Therapy Center (GKTC) in Herndon, Virginia. Services at GKTC focus on teaching students the purposeful motor skills to Spell to Communicate. Elizabeth believes in the rigorous training of professionals to serve the nonspeaking population. GKTC hosts interns from varied service fields and developed the Accessing Community Through Spelling (ACTS) professional development program which produces a network of highly trained practitioners.

Ivan Riobo, MBA, MSCS, Gregory Abowd, D. Phil, Researchers

Capturing the Gaze Trajectory and Spelling Automatically while Letter Boarding

We are using non-invasive gaze tracking technology and instrumented letter boards to explore capturing the gaze trajectory and the actual poking in a synchronized manner while spelling automatically during letter board lessons. This we hope will allow us to better understand how using letter boards works, identifying different user profiles, while attempting to automate the individual communication.
Ivan Riobo, MBA, MSCS Ivan Riobo is an Affiliated Research Scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology within the Ubicomp Group at the College of Computing, whose research revolves around understanding how technology interacts and helps individuals with autism, their families and community around them. Additionally, Ivan is currently the STEM Teacher and a Co-Lead Teacher at The Hirsch Academy.
Gregory Abowd, D. Phil. Gregory D. Abowd is a Regents’ Professor and J.Z. Liang Chair in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. His research interests concern how the advanced information technologies of ubiquitous computing impact our everyday lives when they are seamlessly integrated into our living spaces. Dr. Abowd’s work has involved schools and homes, with a recent focus on health and particularly autism. He is also the founding President of the Atlanta Autism Consortium.

Alex Zbeeb, Jill Brownley, Kelci Richter, Brittany Smith, Educators

How it Works: Practical Applications in the Classroom

Four teachers from the Hirsch Academy discuss what they have learned for supporting and educating students with a range of sensory movement differences in the classroom. Brittany, Jill, Kelci and Alex share a variety of teaching experiences. Topics that will be discussed include curriculum, purposeful motor activities, autonomy, and even “what’s next” for new teachers.
Presenters: Alex Zbeeb is a lead teacher of 6-7 year olds at Hirsch Academy and has been an educator for over 20 years. Jill Brownley is a lead science teacher at Hirsch and has worked in DIR schools for most of her career. Kelci Richter is a co-lead teacher at Hirsch Academy where she teaches math to 3rd grade students and Brittany Smith is a lead teacher at Hirsch having worked in both private and public school settings.

Dillan Barmache/Deborah Spengler, Student and Educator

More Info Coming Soon!

Conference Schedule








Welcome/Intro to our day

Laura Nadine


Opening Remarks

Laura Nadine



Jennifer Griffith

Rising Above and Beyond the Look


Edlyn Pena

Building Capacity to Include Students with Sensory-Motor Differences in Schools and Colleges



Ivan Riobo and Gregory Abowd

Capturing the Gaze Trajectory and Spelling Automatically while using Letterboards


Noah Seback/Graciela Lotharius

Supporting Quirky Bodies and Great Minds in the Classroom









Michele Kukler

Making it Happen: Honoring Neurodiverse Learners in High School and Beyond


Kathy Berger

Understanding and Appreciating the Cognitive Motor and Sensory Processing Differences of our Students



Jackson Patton

Soar Above Habits and Take Control



Heather Patton

More than Meets the Ear


Dillan Barmache/Deborah Spengler



Casey DePriest/Tsz-Hei Fatima Chan

Creating Optimal Rhythms:  Unlocking Potential of Non-Speaking Students through Music Therapy and Movement


Lunch/Community connections



Lunch/Community Connections



Reece Blankenship/John McCarty

Let’s Change the Trends



Alexandra Davis  and Gabriel Stettner-Auerbach

Real Friendships Between Autistics


Dana Johnson/Kelley Combs

From Chaotic to Organized: How to Support Disorganized Bodies in the Classroom



Edlyn Pena

Preparing Students who Use AAC for College


Brittany Smith, Jill Brownley, Alex Zbeeb, Kelci Richter

How it Works: Practical Applications in the Classroom



Tristan Draycott

The Right to an Education is the Right To Dream



Rethinking Autism and Therapeutic Approaches










Educators and Self-Advocates


Susan Lisenby, Kelsey Aughey and Roxy Cuadra

Checking Presumptions At the Door!



Laura Nadine

Closing Remarks


Rishi Jenai

Inclusion and Spelling to Communicate in Public School



Rooms Available for Community Connections

Audience can choose: Educators in one room/Self-advocates in other two rooms…


Elizabeth Vosseller/Janine Abalos

Perspectives on Inclusion



Rooms Available for Community Connections

Audience can choose: Educators in one room/Self-advocates in other two rooms…