CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Sondra Williams was invited to speak directly to President Barack Obama about autism last year.
A high-functioning autistic, Williams now is an author and national speaker. But as a child she was nonverbal, not speaking at all until she was 3.
"People forget there's more to a person than autism," Williams said in her Thursday keynote address at the ninth annual Southeastern Autism Symposium at Lee University. "I do not 'suffer' from autism. It is what it is."
In her address, Williams, a mother of four, talked about the language, emotional and communication barriers between autistic people and others.
She read her poem, "They Say," about being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a type of autism. Afterward she said, "Sometimes people think we are not aware, when we are very much aware of what's going on around us."
The symposium ends today after a series of workshops on issues ranging from education to legislation.
The event began as a way to match families to resources, said Dr. Deborah Murray, dean of the Helen DeVos College of Education at Lee. Through the years, the symposium has covered a growing number of issues, she said.
"We try to take the community temperature each year," Murray said. "One of the big concerns now is transitions."
Whether the transition is from home to school, to a new school or to becoming an adult, it has become a central issue for those with autism, she said.
The autistic community is growing, too, said Dr. Rick Rader of Chattanooga's Orange Grove Center, also a symposium sponsor.
"There is a transition, too, from people shrugging their shoulders to recognizing it as a fact to be dealt with," Rader said.
One question is whether the incidence of autism is increasing, the definitions are changing or both, he said.
This year's symposium also included what new technology, ranging from iPads to tracking devices, can bring to an autistic person's life, Murray and Rader said.