Provo is home to world's largest convention for adults with autism

The seventh annual AutCon kicked off May 16 at ScenicView Academy in Provo. Adults with autism attended the convention to learn skills, play games and socialize.

The seventh annual AutCon kicked off May 16 at ScenicView Academy in Provo. Adults with autism attended the convention to learn skills, play games and socialize. (Emma Everett Johnson)

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PROVO — Sarah Heuser was tired of events about people with autism. She wanted events "by and for" people with autism.

She and her college friend Kari Bushman dreamed of a day when they could organize a convention just for adults with autism. That day finally came in 2018 when they teamed up with ScenicView Academy in Provo to host the first annual AutCon, billed as "an unconventional convention for adults with autism."

Heuser, who was diagnosed with autism at 18, hoped convention attendees felt at home with like-minded neurodivergent people.

"When I was diagnosed, there were a few times I got to go to majority autistic spaces," she said. "That was overwhelmingly emotional for me because it was almost like going home."

This year's AutCon was a two-day, sold-out, Dungeons and Dragons-themed event beginning Thursday. It kicked off with a well-attended group session. When a $500 Dungeons and Dragons LEGO set was unveiled as a raffle prize, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause.

While there are other conferences about autism in general, there aren't many specifically for people with autism to attend. Bushman said organizers believe AutCon is the largest of its kind in the world.

Adults with autism from across the country, with the majority of attendees from Utah, came to participate in sessions about parenting, dating, making friends, being LGBT and autistic, career options, therapy, Dungeons and Dragons, emotional management, attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while autistic and more.

All of the session presenters are autistic themselves. It's important for people with autism to see other autists "who are further down the road," said Jared Stewart, who is a director at ScenicView Academy and autistic.

"We always feel kind of on the edge, always a little marginalized … trying to fit in, trying to camouflage," Stewart said. "It's such a powerful thing to feel like I'm not alone."

The event organizers are careful to accommodate attendees, acknowledging "everyone's flavor of autism is a little different," Stewart said.

Attendees can come and go as they please, no questions asked. Non-harmful stimming — the prolonged repetition of certain movements or nonverbal sounds that is one of the more recognizable symptoms of autism — is allowed, and attendees can put in headphones, doodle and move their chairs as needed. Each attendee also has two different colored name tags, one for when they want to talk and one for when they need some space.

"The world may not be built for us, but we can build our world and community," Stewart said.

Keynote speaker Maureen Dunne, who is a cognitive scientist, neurodiversity expert and autistic, encouraged people with autism to contribute to their communities even though they might feel different.

Dunne went to community college so she could tailor her schedule to her needs, and she ended up being the first-ever community college graduate to be a Rhodes Scholar. Now she consults with companies that want to hire neurodivergent employees but aren't sure how to support them.

"We need a paradigm shift in how the world views autism, how people think about autism, how people talk about autism," she said.

The shift is already beginning to happen. Texas Instruments attended AutCon to recruit people with autism for semiconductor manufacturing. Last November, Texas Instruments broke ground on its new $11 billion, 300-mm semiconductor wafer fabrication plant in northern Utah County, adding to the production of its existing 300-mm wafer fabrication plant in Lehi.

Demand for more AutCons is also growing. The organization is looking to host AutCon in Salt Lake City and potentially in the Phoenix area.

"Even though it only happens once a year … I hope they have found a place that they can go and feel like they went home," Heuser said.

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Emma Everett Johnson covers Utah as a general news reporter. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University.


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