I recently went to East China Normal University to give a talk on issues surrounding Sensory Integration and practical interventions. I expected to make the same presentation I had made many times. Public speaking has never been my greatest gift, but through years of practice, I have grown comfortable presenting my expertise in informal settings, usually to groups of a couple-dozen parents.

This time, I realized as I saw the many, many cars parked near the building where I was to speak, would not be unlike any presentation I had given before. In fact, I would be on stage, under lights, speaking to an audience of more than 400; professors, educators, researchers and parents had come to the university in considerable numbers, and it now fell to me to deliver something like a keynote address. I had to forget everything I had fought so hard to learn about public speaking, gulp hard and simply dive in.

As if my unexpectedly high profile were not enough to adapt to, I was informed that an interpreter would be there to assist me in communicating with the primarily Mandarin-Chinese speaking audience, and that I would need to speak slowly and clearly, making frequent pauses for translation. In that moment more than any other in my life, I wished for the ability to speak fluent Chinese myself.

As I began to speak, I found my presentational rhythm; beyond the feeling of relief that I was managing to keep my composure in front of all of those eyes, I felt a growing sensation of engagement and connection with the people whom I was addressing. An audience of 400 was following me as easily as my earlier audiences of, perhaps four dozen. Moreover, when I came down from the stage for interaction with my audience, I found them to be possibly the most engaged, most knowledgeable group I had ever presented to.

One moment especially stands out in my recollection: I put a question to the audience, one usually meant to frame a broader question rather than to test knowledge. I told them:

I once treated a young boy with Autism who had terrible trouble getting to sleep. Every night around bedtime, this boy would jump around in his room, and was simply incapable of calming down, sometimes until as late as 3 o’clock in the morning. Can anybody tell me why?

In all of the times I have used this question in presentations, I had never had somebody volunteer a correct answer. There are even times when I’m speaking in much smaller rooms and nobody wishes to venture a guess, so I simply go on to answer my own question. This time, toward the back of the room, an unassuming gentleman put his hand up.

Is it because the child’s overwhelmed by all the sensory inputs that have built up in his head over the course of the day?

I was stunned and delighted. I went on to elaborate on my point and conclude my presentation, but in the back of my mind I was thinking of how I needed to meet this man. 

I approached him after the talk, expecting to hear that he was a doctor or a researcher; in fact, he was a parent of a boy with autism. Through his independently conducted research, he had acquired a sophistication of understanding that is quite rare, even in cultures that have been treating autism for decades.

I shared a couple of further reading recommendations, including Carol Kranowitz’s The Out-of-sync Child and The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, exchanged contact information and left the building, amazed by much larger and more sophisticated China’s community of adults concerned with Autism and sensory integration related issues has become in the short time since I have joined The Essential Learning Group.

Tags: sensory integration, autism, The Out-of-sync Child, Regina Nicolas, Triumph, Public Speaking, ECNU