Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness

Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness

I’m very pleased to be presenting at the second annual Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness conference on Saturday, February 7, at the University of North Carolina–Asheville. I was at the conference as an attendee last year, and it was truly wonderful. The other speakers presenting at this year’s conference are an extraordinary, diverse group of smart and caring thinkers who I think will change the way you see the world, as many of them have done for me.

North Carolinians, South Carolinians, Tennesseans, Martians: consider attending this great event.

Here is information about the conference with session descriptions and speaker bios from Empower Autism …

Second Annual Empower Autism Conference: Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness
February 7th, 2015
UNCA Highsmith Building, Asheville, North Carolina

Conference Fees:
$25 – Individual Tickets
$40 – Individual Ticket plus sponsor part of someone else’s ticket!
$100 – Vendors
Free – UNCA Psychology department faculty and students


Session Descriptions

Sylvia van Meerten: Opening Remarks: Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness
9:15-9:45am (room 159)
Please join us to set the tone for the conference. We believe in happiness over conformity and dialogue over diagnosis. All of us can expand our perspectives about autism and neurodiversity.

Catherine Faherty: A Personal Sense of Well-Being: Considering the current research on happiness and what the autism community can do about it
10:00-10:45am (room 224)
Positive Psychology’s research about happiness has identified specific actions that people can take to have a greater feeling of well-being. After a brief summary about this research, Catherine will highlight the recommendations for increasing personal happiness and suggest how to make many of these generic recommendations more accessible, by offering a sampling of practical examples. This is a repeat of Catherine’s presentation at last year’s conference. It is meant to be helpful to interested members of the autism community: adults, parents, and professionals.

Priscilla Brackett: Happiness & Parenting: The Great Balancing Act
10:00-10:45am (room 222)
Priscilla will share insights into the world of an autistic mom and daughter on their journey to maintain balance and create happiness in their lives. This presentation will be based on personal experiences and is intended for anyone in the autism community.

Heather Hill: Happy, Fluffy, Love Camp: Why Does Summer Camp Promote Happiness?
10:00-10:45am (room 221)
It is no mistake that staff jokingly refer to our little camp as the “Happy, Fluffy, Love Camp” rather than it’s official name, Camp Lakey Gap (CLG). Summer camp provides a place for community, acceptance, exercise, exploration, growth, and a whole lot of happiness. This presentation will focus on why summer camp can be an integral part of an individual’s happiness.

Jade McWilliams: Happiness is a Human Right: Autism at the Intersection of Poverty
11:00-11:45am (room 223)
Autistic people can be a very vulnerable population, especially to the effects of poverty. If we want to take the happiness and well-being of autistic people seriously, we need to look closely at this issue. Jade will address how poverty affects happiness, how it affects the lives of autistic people, and some steps we can take to help strengthen our community.

John Monchak: Happiness as an intuited dynamic natural state of Being
11:00-11:45am (room 221)
John will speak about Happiness as a natural state of Being and share his own insights and discuss how he recognizes Happiness and manifest Happiness.

Kelly Stamey, Austin Pickens, Zak Fischer & Michael McCarthy: Navigating independence – Can google maps get me there?
11:00-11:45am (room 222)
Navigating young adulthood can be an enormous challenge for anyone, especially when learning the steps necessary to live independent. The individuals of this panel will share and discuss the challenges that they have had during their transition into adulthood and what they are doing to overcome those challenges.

Ben Mack: Autism, Happiness & NVC, Nonviolent Communications
12:00-12:45 (room 222)
First, discover how a medical-alert card can alleviate day-to-day challenges of being an adult Aspie. Next see how this card, and the comedy of Aspie Comic Michael McCreary, both apply the best practices of NVC, Nonviolent Communications. Finally, a mediated Q&A to get your questions answered. Thank you to Asheville’s for sponsoring this presentation and
paying for Loren Strand’s time, the New Media Producer who also facilitated the Google Hangout so we can interconnect with Michael McCreary.

Ray Hemachandra: Question Your Values: Six Questions for Families and Society 12:00-12:45pm (room 221)
When a child or adult receives a diagnosis of autism, families, professionals, and the larger culture are all challenged to recreate their expectations for the autistic person. These six simple yet central value questions — or value contrasts — are designed to engage, inform, provoke, and invite reflection, ultimately resulting in a support-and-care design of greater mindfulness in relationship with the autistic person and more purposeful choice in establishing what normative means that recognizes and respects the individual as individual, as autistic, and ultimately as the primary definer of her or his own life. The presentation, originally designed from a parent-to-parent perspective, is equally relevant to teachers, therapists, medical professionals, and even autistics themselves.

Catherine Faherty: A Happiness Booster: Stimmy-Dancing and Relaxation Session 12:00-12:45pm (room 224)
This session is for any conference attendee who enjoys stimming and/or dancing with a variety of rhythmic and danceable music AND who enjoys being in a group of people who are moving around. The session will conclude with a period of guided relaxation. PLEASE READ: There is one facilitator for this session. If any child or adult would be safer and/or happier accompanied by a familiar person, or is used to having personal help, then the familiar person or helper must also attend this session. LIMITED ROOM CAPACITY: Due to the size of the room, entry to this session will be limited to 20 total participants to ensure safety.

Speaker Biographies

Sylvia van Meerten, MA: “After getting to know people with autism and their families for 12 years, and learning a variety of autism methodologies in several states, I’ve seen a lot of brilliant work and a lot of dedicated people. I believe that people on the spectrum have a lot to contribute to the world. The rest of us do, too. I have dedicated my professional career to creating programs that actually work for people with autism and practical workshops that prepare staff to be truly effective. Want to talk about resources, staff training, program-development, activity groups, homeschooling, or home programs? Empower Autism is my business, and I love to talk shop.”

Catherine Faherty taught a variety of students with diverse learning styles before creating a model classroom in 1985 for elementary-aged students with ASD. From 1990 through 2012 she worked as an autism specialist with the TEACCH program. Along with working with teachers, individuals, families, and children, running social groups and support groups for parents, she has written manuals used in TEACCH trainings, co-developed a multitude of training models, and is the author of three books, one of which was recognized as the Autism Society of America’s 2009 Outstanding Literary Work. Catherine works with Carol Gray, as an authorized Social Stories instructor. Her mentoring and consultation — via long-distance technology — is sought after by therapists, teachers, and parents in the U.S. and abroad. She speaks at conferences and provides trainings world-wide. Catherine, who is neurotypical, is a devoted ally of autistic self-advocates. For more information, visit Visit Catherine’s table at the conference, and enter the free raffle to go home with one of her books of your choice! The winner will be announced before the end of the conference.

Priscilla Brackett lives in Hendersonville, with her eight year old daughter and husband. Her business, Neurodiversity At Work, specializes in providing bookkeeping and administrative support to small business owners with invisible disabilities. Priscilla is the co-founder of two social groups: Autistic Women Rock and WNC Super Girls! Both groups meet once a month and are open to women/girls diagnosed with ASD, SPD, ADD/ADHD, OCD, and Anxiety Disorders.

Heather Hill’s Autism experience started in 2000 as camp counselor at local day camp and continued with other experiences through ASNC, Special Olympics, Burlington Parks and Recreation, and the ARC. After graduating from Appalachian State University with a BS in Psychology, Heather continued on to earn a graduate degree and Specialist degree in School Psychology. She then worked as a School Psychologist, participating on the countywide Autism Evaluation team. Heather presently serves as the Director of Camp Lakey Gap and as a Community Support Instructor with the Autism Society of N.C. She lives in Swannanoa with her husband and two spoiled cats. You can reach Heather at

Jade McWilliams is an autistic self-advocate who wants autistic people to be able to live in ways that make them feel happy, comfortable, and satisfied. Jade considers herself a “maker” and loves to create beautiful things with her hands. She also loves science fiction and is a big fan of “Star Trek,” “Planet of the Apes,” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books.

John Monchak was born and raised in south central Pennsylvania and studied Fine Art and Psychology at Millersville University. He has produced art on exhibit in private and public spaces. John has traveled extensively throughout the USA and has volunteered for the Forest Service in numerous National Forests. John has worked with children and adults with mental health diagnoses. John currently resides in Western North Carolina and spends some time volunteering as a Bicycle Mechanic with Asheville Bike Recyclery.

Kelly Stamey has worked with the special needs population for the past 15 years. During that time she has had the opportunity to work with a variety of special needs. She has specialized in working with individuals on the autism spectrum for the past 14 years. During that time she has developed and directed a long-term residential program, developed a vocational program for a community provider, directed a small business program that employ individuals with disabilities, provided consultation and education to programs and families with in the state of North Carolina, and developed individualized programming for participants in the home, community, and school setting. Kelly is passionate about helping others achieve personal greatness and develop skills for continued progress. Kelly completed her master’s degree in applied behavior analysis at Ball State University.

Dr. Ben Mack is 47-years-old and was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 45. His novel Poker Without Cards is this month’s selection for the Asheville Autism Book Club, and he is the only author to whom Kurt Vonnegut gave permission to appropriate a character. However, Ben is better known for his contributions to marketing and theatrical magic. The American Marketing Association credits Ben with re-popularizing Yo-Yos, what People Magazine cited as one of the Top 10 Trends of the 1990s, and The Academy of Magical Arts gave Ben the Award of Merit when he was only 20, making him the youngest person to have ever been given a life achievement award.

Michael McCreary, aka Aspie Comic, may only be 18 years old, but he’s already an internationally recognized stand-up comedian. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 5 — in an act of self-preservation, combined with the desire for constant attention and the inability to stop talking, stand-up comedy seemed inevitable. See the world through his eyes as he takes you on a comical journey through the lighter side of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Ray Hemachandra is parent to a 14-year-old autistic son. Ray blogs at about autism and other topics. He serves on various boards and committees for WNC Group Homes for Autistic Persons, Family Support Network, and Buncombe County Schools’ Exceptional Children’s Department and as a family trainer and support parent, and he speaks regularly as a presenter or panelist for autism professionals, medical professionals, teachers, college students, and autism-camp counselors.

[All this information comes courtesy of Empower Autism Conference, 2015, … and, once again, we invite you to join us, please!]

I welcome your comments and engagement:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s