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8th Annual Southeast Adult Autism Symposium
2024 Speaker Information

Read below to find out more information about the speakers and presentations we will feature at this event. Speakers are listed alphabetically by last name.

Kristen Calloway, BS, Judy Pate, BA, and Conya Mull
ECF Choices

Description:  This workshop will introduce participants to the Employment and Community First CHOICES program that serves individuals with intellectual and /or developmental disabilities included in the presentation will be specifics on eligibility and the criteria for enrollment, the services and supports within ECF CHOICES and the philosophy of "dignity of choice" and what that means for the individuals that we serve.

Learning Objectives:  Attendees will be able to understand the ECF CHOICES program, eligibility requirements for enrollment the services, how to apply and supports provided and the philosophy of the program.

Speaker Biography:  Kristen Calloway, is a BlueCare Member Advocate who works with individuals in the Employment and Community First CHOICES program assisting them to be more independent, become more involved in their communities and learn about and gain competitive and integrated employment.  Kristen is part of the Learning Community for Person Centered Practices as a Person-Centered Thinking Trainer.  Before her current role as a Member Advocate, Kristen has worked for 25 years supporting children and adults.  In her various roles she has worked in early intervention, with first-time at-risk mothers, with foster children and families, as well as adults with a diagnosis of I/DD. She has collaborated with state organizations to learn, teach and implement person centered practices, before becoming a trainer. 


Judy Pate has been working with people who have an intellectual or developmental disability for 20 years.  She started as a job developer with Easter Seals in California and then began working with dually diagnosed individuals as a direct support professional in Tennessee.  In Tennessee, she managed the ODEP -funded Tennessee Customized Employment Partnership where she led a team of job developers.  Judy also worked as Disability Resource Coordinator in the American Job Center developing the "Ticket to Work" program with Social Security Administration.  Most recently, she has been working as a Member Advocate in the Employment and Community First CHOICES program facilitating regional Advisory Board meetings, serving as a liaison between members and TennCare, and providing education and outreach to families, communities, schools and member in the ECF CHOICES program.


Conya Mull has had a rewarding career of over 22 years serving youth and adults with disabilities.  Over the past six years she has worked as an advocate for United Healthcare in the Employment and Community First CHOICES(ECF) program.  In this role she serves as the point of contact for the I/DD population by assisting with navigation through the health plan, Community Outreach, Social Determinants of Health, Community Resources, Advisory Board and Community Forum meetings and Self-Advocacy. Conya is currently serving on the Mayor's Advisory Council for Individuals with Disabilities for the City of Knoxville and Knox County and was appointed by the governor to serve on a state advisory committee called "Programs and Services for Persons with Disabilities.

Laura Coleman, BA in Psychology

Autism & Suicide: My Journey from the Brink and Back


Description: This presentation will provide an overview of current statistics concerning autism and suicide risk, as well as sharing relevant resources. The speaker will recount her experiences of growing up autistic with a co-occurring mood disorder and struggling from severe depression, suicidal ideation and multiple suicide attempts. She will conclude by sharing the loss of her mother to suicide, as well as how she found the will to somehow survive.


Learning Objectives: Attendees will be able to 1. Understand the underlying risk factors that can lead to suicide in autistic people,

2. Learn where to find suicide prevention resources for autistic adults, 3. Be provided examples of how to build resiliency and rebuild one’s life following a suicide attempt and/or suicide loss, as well as suggestions of how to cope with grief/trauma/loss and reduce the risk of falling back into suicidal patterns of thinking


Speaker Biography: Laura S. Coleman (B.A., Psychology) is currently a Clinical Research Coordinator for the SPARK Study with the Marcus Autism Center and Emory University’s School of Medicine. She is a graduate of Emory University and was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum during her time there as an undergraduate student. She has also done graduate work in the Masters of Education program at Georgia State University, which has been on pause since the pandemic. Beginning in 2016, Laura has been employed at the Marcus Autism Center, having started in the behavior clinic but working in research for the past six years. Additionally, Laura has been an active autistic advocate for many years and has served in an advisory capacity for multiple grants and initiatives since 2018. Her personal background has involved coping with intergenerational trauma, overcoming her own severe mental health challenges since her symptoms first emerged in early adolescence and surviving the traumatic loss of her mother, whom she lost to suicide in 2014. She is a passionate advocate for building resiliency in the face of seemingly unsurmountable challenges and setbacks, and she is a strong believer in the power of compassion-based therapeutic approaches to mental health and the importance of finding human connection to address the emerging societal challenges of chronic loneliness and alienation.


Abbigail Jeanette, Molly Campbell, Devan Gann, Stephanie Schwan, and Nancy Rogers (Moderator)
You Don't Look Autistic: Panel on Masking & Late Diagnosis


Description: Recent research suggests that Autism is vastly undiagnosed in females. Panel discussion of some reasons (such as medical prejudice, ignorance of Dx criteria, masking/camouflaging, etc.) that women and girls have a tough time getting Autism diagnosis and accommodations. Panel made up of women with a professional or self diagnosis of Autism discuss their journeys navigating life and work.


Learning Objectives: Attendees will learn: some of the reasons women go undiagnosed, what is masking and why it is unhealthy in the long term, how to find community online and maybe in real life. 


Speaker Biography:Coming Soon!


Amber Lavin CLC and Michele Louzon MS Clinical Mental Health Counseling

What You Didn't Learn in Sex Ed (But Should Have)

Description: EVERYONE deserves a healthy, happy sex life and relationship. Sex ed covers the mechanics of sex, information about birth control and STI's, but leaves out important information about masturbation, sexual response, intimacy and communication. Rarely do sex ed programs touch on sex and disability. Rarely are we taught how to connect and have healthy relationships. We will be challenging deeply held beliefs/biases regarding sex/relationships and disability such as what is "normal" and what is "wrong" and that autistic people are not sexual beings. We will also focus on intimacy and connection. It’s our birthright to connect with others. As well as challenging the belief that autistic people do not value connection.

Speaker BiographyAmber Lavin is a graduate of Mars Hill University. She received her teaching licensure as an exceptional children's teacher. Amber has worked as a professional with adults and children with disabilities for over 15 years. Currently, she is working as a certified life and relationship coach. She specializes in working with individuals around mindful & intentional dating as well as neurodivergent adults who face challenges associated with ADHD, the autism spectrum, executive functioning, and sensory disorders. 

Michele Louzon has an MS in Clinical Mental Heath Counseling from Georgia State University with a specialty in adolescent sexuality. She created and implemented a sex education program for Summit Medical Center to be taught in Atlanta Public Schools and taught a sex ed program in Buncombe County middle schools and Asheville City middle and high school for The Health Adventure. She is founder and executive director of Arms Around ASD, a nonprofit dedicated to providing services for autistic people, their families, caregivers and professionals who work with them.


Liz Norell, PhD

Requesting Accommodations at Work: Things I Wish I'd Known Earlier

Description: Through my experiences seeking accommodations at work, I learned a lot about what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires and allows—and definitely does not allow—from workplace human resources staff. In this session, I will share what I’ve learned since about how employers can run afoul of the ADA, how to advocate for yourself if you choose to seek accommodations, and how to alert authorities if your rights are violated.

Learning Objectives: Attendees will: (1) understand the broad outlines of what information can be shared/is confidential; (2) describe potential benefits and risks of disclosing an autism diagnosis at work and requesting accommodations; (3) develop greater understanding of their own work contexts.

Speaker Biography: Liz Norell is a college professor and educational developer who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 45. As associate director of instructional support at the University of Mississippi, I work with faculty at a large flagship university on creating more inclusive and equitable learning environments. As part of that work, I frequently write and speak about supporting neurodivergent students. I am now working on a book aimed at helping college educators understand different kinds of neurodivergent diagnoses, how they might manifest in classrooms, and how to support students with those different conditions. I have a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Texas at Dallas, master’s degrees in journalism (University of Arkansas), library science (Texas Woman’s University), and political science (Vanderbilt University), and an undergraduate degree in journalism (George Washington University).


Melissa Perry, MS, RDN, CDCES and Cassie Wanamaker, MA, CHES

Nourishing Neurodiversity

Description: Nutrition and physical activity are imperative to living a healthy lifestyle and reducing the risk of chronic illness. This presentation highlights the barriers that people with Autism face to eating and moving well. We will discuss practical strategies to develop a balanced diet as well as tips on how to increase movement to improve overall health.

Learning Objectives:1) Understand the importance of nutrition and physical activity for a healthy lifestyle. 2) Acknowledge common barriers to healthy eating and exercising in adults with Autism. 3) Recognize strategies to increase intake of healthy foods. 4) Identify practical ways to increase physical activity and movement.

Speaker BiographyMelissa Perry is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist with BlueCare at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. She has 10 years of experience working with a variety of patient populations to tailor nutrition interventions for various health issues. Melissa received her Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics from the University of Mississippi. She then continued her education at the University of Mississippi by completing her dietetic internship and obtaining a Masters degree in food and nutrition science. Melissa is currently in the process of obtaining a Masters in Public Health degree through the University of Tennessee. 


Cassie Wanamaker is a Health Educator with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. She joined BlueCross BlueShield in October of 2019 and currently serves BlueCare members in Chattanooga and surrounding areas. She has experience working with a variety of patient populations in chronic disease prevention and management, specifically in the areas of weight management and smoking cessation. Cassie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health from East Tennessee State University. She then continued her education at Tennessee Technological University and obtained a Master of Arts degree in Exercise Science, Physical Education, and Wellness. Cassie is also a Certified Health Education Specialist. Cassie resides in Chattanooga, TN with her 10-year-old Australian Shepherd, Harper.

Meredith Sinclair, MS, CRC

Small Talk Survival Guide: Navigating the Necessary Awkwardness for Meaningful Connections

DescriptionLet's talk about small talk! We all know it can be awkward and uncomfortable, especially for those of us with unique ways of thinking. But fear not! In this presentation, we will delve into the realm of small talk, break down what small talk really is, and why it's not as scary as it seems. We will define its essence and clarify its purpose, distinguishing it from deeper, more meaningful conversations. We will tackle common questions like: Do we really need small talk? Is it important for building relationships? Can we skip it altogether? We will also explore why many of us find small talk so challenging, and how we can turn it into a tool for better, more meaningful conversations.  

Key Topics: 

- Demystifying small talk and its role in socializing 

- Answering common questions and busting myths about small talk 

- Understanding why small talk can be tough for us and how to make it easier 

- Tips and tricks for navigating small talk and turning it into real, meaningful connections 

- Learning to view small talk as a stepping stone to deeper conversations and stronger relationships

Learning Objectives: Attendees will gain a clear understanding of what small talk is and its importance in social interactions. Attendees will be equipped with knowledge to address common misconceptions about small talk, such as its necessity and impact on relationships. Attendees will learn that small talk doesn't have to be scary—it can actually be a door opener and lead to great conversations. Attendees will learn practical strategies to navigate through small talk with greater ease and confidence. Learn and use strategies for handling small talk with ease and turning it into something positive. Attendees will be encouraged to see small talk as a starting point for more meaningful and substantial conversations and a way to increase connections. Attendees will learn ways to use small talk as a tool for connecting with others in a meaningful way.

Speaker Biography: Meredith Sinclair is the Executive Director/Founder of LIFE Behavior Consulting, LLC. Meredith holds a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Georgia State University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Pennsylvania State University. She is a certified Rehabilitation Counselor and a Certified PEERS for Young Adults Provider, School Based Provider, and Telehealth provider. Meredith loves working with people with Neurodiverse brain styles to help them learn the skills to build their confidence and independence in working on their goals in life, whatever those may be. Meredith's specialty is helping her clients uncover and leverage their strengths and take action steps to apply the skills they are learning out in the real world. She is an advocate for Neurodiversity in the workplace and believes that anyone who has the desire to work CAN work and have a fulfilling career with the right supports.


Kristi Strode, PhD

Navigating the College Experience and Reaching Out to the Disabilities Office

Description: Firstly, attendees will learn about the laws that oversee the process for students who wish to develop an accommodation plan at a college. The overall presentation focus points will be on making the leap to attend, finding your anchor people on campus, navigating the social landscape, and preparing for academic considerations (like working on a schedule to reach deadlines). All will be based in the current research about the subject. Potential students will leave prepared for how to make a plan and put their best foot forward in a college environment.

Speaker Biography: I am Kristi Strode, PhD. I am probably autistic myself (no diagnosis), and I have a son with autism. I am a first-generation college student. I started into college at Chattanooga State, where I now work as Director of the Center for Access and Disability Services. I have a Bachelor's in economics, and I old two Master's degrees in human services and English.  My doctoral degree is in psychology, and my dissertation work was about neurodiverse college students who underperform academically. I just won the Donna Sparger Award for Professional of the Year from TNAHEAD for 2024.

Alex Szemetylo, BFA

Improv - Exploration of Creativity in the Moment

Description: This presentation will be an interactive experience focused on the joy of play, listening, and working with others. There will be a presentation of concepts and interactive games to reinforce and contextualize the "rules of improv."

Learning Objectives: Attend Improv Jams, Partake in games, and take time to play.

Speaker Biography:  Alex Szemetylo is an actor with a BFA in Acting from the University of Southern California, and trained in Improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade in LA and NYC. I currently teach improv to teens and adults on the Autism Spectrum with the nonprofit, Autism Improvised.

Ivy Varenhorst

Consent, Relationships, & Sex

Description: In this seminar, we will delve into the complexities of dating and romantic relationships, focusing on the unique perspectives of individuals with autism. Our objective is to shed light on these topics, providing practical insights and fostering a deeper understanding to make healthy romantic relationships more approachable for neurodivergent individuals.

Learning Objectives: 1) Learn how to better declare and discuss boundaries and feelings when it comes to dating and sexual activity. 2) Better understand what consent means in these kinds of situations. 3) Better understand what it is like for people with autism to navigate these situations.

Speaker Biography: Ivy Varenhorst is a 28-year-old billing coordinator who was diagnosed with autism in her twenties and has been on her mental health and wellness journey too. Ivy spoke at last year's symposium and gave a presentation on how people with autism can practice better self-care.

​Karen L. Weigle, PhD

Positive Psychology and How It Can Improve Well-being

Description: Positive psychology is the study of what makes us happy and well. Alleviating mental health conditions is critical, but takes us only halfway to health and well-being. This presentation will outline foundational evidence-based strategies to improve health and well-being that can be immediately applied in everyday life.

Learning Objectives: Attendees will be able to: 1) identify what PERMA stands for and how it relates to well-being; 2) describe learned hopefulness and that hope is a verb; and 3) use at least 2 strategies in their everyday lives.

Speaker Biography: Dr. Karen Weigle is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, HSP, with over 30 years of experience working with people with Neurodevelopmental Disabilities and mental health needs, and their families. She received her master’s degree and PhD from West Virginia University and completed residency at Michigan State University. She has extensive experience working as part of an interdisciplinary team and has provided assessment and intervention services in a variety of contexts including in-home, school-based, clinic-based, agency-based, hospital-based, and community crisis response. Dr. Weigle has experience in training medical professionals, educators, community-based service providers, families, and laypersons. As the Associate Director of the National Center for START Services at University of New Hampshire Institute on Disabilities, she oversees the development and implementation of START programs (which are evidence-based mental health crisis prevention and intervention teams serving people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and their communities) across the United States. Dr. Weigle is also founding member of the Chattanooga Autism Center, where she continues to provide outpatient services.

Nathan Zimmerman, Jess L. Harris, Kirk Lazenby, and Kevin Fox

Employment Panel for Autistics

Description: Presentation about individuals who are employed and work on the autism spectrum.

Learning Objectives: Educating others that autistic people work.

Speaker BiographyNathan Zimmerman is the program director of the GCA Centre for Adult Autism from Chattanooga, TN. Nathan has lived independently in a house in Chattanooga since 2006 and has helped other adults with autism achieve their independence and driving goals. In his spare time, Nathan enjoys helping others and working on cars and computers.

Jess L. Harris is a neurodiverse therapist who works counseling people at the Chattanooga Autism Center. It wasn’t until her early 30s that she discovered this career path, however. She spent several years previously working a few different kinds of jobs, so she can speak to a varied experience. She also has engaged with autistic individuals who are working/looking for a job, and is familiar with some of the challenges that can arise, but also the vast benefits and valuable experiences. Jess has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, both from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). Jess thoroughly enjoys her work, but outside of her job she loves watching movies, collecting fidget toys, and spending time with her family, friends, and cats.

Kevin Fox is an autistic adult from Chattanooga, TN. He has been a leave specialist with Unum since October 2023 and is happy to report it is going well so far, despite the challenges of a hybrid job mixing in-person and remote work, commuting to an office
two days each week, and working 40 or more hours each week. Kevin also holds a Master of Library Science degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and an undergraduate degree in professional writing from Elon University. He is a self-advocate who has worked with the Chattanooga Autism Center for many years. In his
spare time, Kevin enjoys writing fiction and poems, playing piano, singing, and reading.

Kirk Lazenby is a social work major in his junior year at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is in the Mosaic program for autistic degree seekers. As an adult diagnosed later in life with both autism and ADHD (age 46) he has a unique perspective on autism and navigating the working world as a neurodivergent individual. After spending the first half of his life as a graphic designer, Kirk radically changed gears post diagnoses, and went back to school to seek his degree in social work and his master’s in counseling. He hopes to work with autistic teens and adults, helping them define success on their terms and be the best advocate for themselves both personally and professionally. 










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