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Flying High with Anita Lesko

Local Lands ‘Big Deal’ Conference
By Jeremy Morrison

A couple of years ago, Anita Lesko realized she had Asperger’s syndrome. That was more than 20 years after she had become a registered nurse anesthetist. After she had graduated from Columbia University in New York City. After she’d become a competitive equestrienne.

“Then I wrote a book about my experience with Asperger’s,” Lesko explained.

She’s a big deal in the on-the-spectrum community.

“Anita’s our own local Temple Grandin,” said Autism Pensacola Director Susan Byram.

In addition to penning her own book—“Asperger’s Syndrome:  When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemonade”—Lesko was also featured in Grandin’s “Different… Not Less.”

Dr. Grandin is considered a guru of sorts in the autistic community. She’s a doctor of animal science and a professor at Colorado State University. She invented the hug-box—a device to calm autistic children—was listed in 2010 by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and was the subject of an award-winning biographical film. She’s also autistic.

It’s Lesko’s relationship with Grandin that has led to what Byram describes as “a unique opportunity” and “a very big deal” for the local on-the-spectrum community.

“I said, ‘Hey, Temple, how about I get you to come down here to Pensacola to do a conference?’” Lesko recalled, explaining her idea for a multi-day, on-the-spectrum-centric event. “I wanted to get all these incredible people down here and in one place at one time.”

Lesko’s vision is being realized in May.

“It’s an enormous event,” Byram smiled. “We have Robert Kennedy Jr. speaking on the third day.”

The Flying High with Autism conference will stretch over three days at the University of West Florida. The billing boasts some of the biggest names in the autism community.

In addition to Grandin and Kennedy, there’s Dr. Stephen Shore, Eustacia Cutler, John Elder Robinson and his son “Cubby.” Even Dr. Tony Attwood will appear via Skype.

To people in the on-the-spectrum community, these names are not only recognizable—they’re inspirational. They are, to put it mildly, very excited.

“It’s a huge deal!” explained Angela Owens, mother of two young children on the spectrum. “To have these speakers come to this area? It’s a ridiculous deal!”

Lesko understands the excitement. It was her intent.

“For parents who have children on the spectrum,” she said, “this gives them knowledge and wisdom.”

Lesko is hoping the Flying High with Autism conference is not a one-off affair. An annual event would be nice.

In fact, Lesko envisions this conference as the beginning of something much bigger. She feels Pensacola—with its already conscious, engaged and thriving on-the-spectrum community—could become known as a particularly rich locale for that community.

“After this conference, I have other plans for Pensacola to become a Mecca, if you will, for Asperger’s-related things,” Lesko said, hinting without elaboration. “It would make Pensacola kind of the it-place.”

FLYING HIGH WITH AUTISM
WHEN: May 13-15
WHERE: University of West Florida
DETAILS: for more information, visit autismpensacola.org