SAAAC Autism Centre

Access Counts — 2019 Autism Conference | Sept. 25 + 26
Sharing Promising Practices to Support Diverse Communities


  • 25+26

    A two day conference, September 25 & 26

  • An Inspiring Space

    The Institute For Learning, Toronto

  • 15

    15 thought leaders from different sectors

The Event:

A conversation that helps drive and inspire equitable autism support services.

Access Counts — Autism Conference 2019: Sharing Best Practices to Empower Diverse Communities is an interdisciplinary two-day conference focused on exploring creative initiatives and strategies to support underserved communities impacted by autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders.

Industry leading speakers – including researchers and practitioners across sectors (health, education, employment, adult support and housing) will provide insight into accessible and inclusive educational and clinical practices.

The event will allow for a dialogue with local, national and international perspectives on inclusive education and community-based models of intervention.


Industry experts sharing, teaching and inspiring from real word experiences.


Dr. Vikram Patel is The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow at the Harvard Medical School. His work has focused on the burden of mental disorders, their association with social disadvantage, and the use of community resources for their prevention and treatment.

He holds Honorary Professorships at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, the Public Health Foundation of India, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (where he co-founded the Centre for Global Mental Health in 2008), and is a co-founder of Sangath, an Indian NGO which won the MacArthur Foundation’s International Prize for Creative and Effective Institutions in 2008 and the WHO Public Health Champion of India award in 2016. He is a co-founder of the Movement for Global Mental Health. He is a Fellow of the UK's Academy of Medical Sciences and has served on several WHO expert and Government of India committees, including the WHO High Level Independent Commission for Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health.

He has been awarded the Chalmers Medal (Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, UK), the Sarnat Medal (US National Academy of Medicine), an Honorary Doctorate from Georgetown University, the Pardes Humanitarian Prize (the Brain & Behaviour Research Foundation), an Honorary OBE from the UK Government and the John Dirk Canada Gairdner Award in Global Health in 2019. He was listed in TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential persons of the year in 2015

Dr. Gillian Parekh is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at York. With a doctorate in Critical Disability Studies, Gillian has conducted extensive research with the Toronto District School Board in the areas of structural equity, special education, and academ ic streaming. In particular, her work explores how schools construct and respond to disability as well as how students are organized across programs and systems.

Tracing Trajectories and Exploring Practice in Special Education

In elementary school, many students are recommended placement in special education programs. As post-secondary education becomes increasingly critical to the labour market, this study examines the role special education placement may play in students’ access to post-secondary opportunities. A recent study, drawing on data from the Toronto District School Board, explores the educational trajectories of students placed in a part-time special education program as well as examines how disability is constructed in schools. In working with schools committed to more inclusive practice, the schooling experiences, pedagogical expertise and structural recommendations from students, educators and administrators will also be shared.

Dr. Zubairi is a Developmental Pediatrician at Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre & Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at McMaster University. His primary area of clinical work is with children with autism and psychopharmacology. Dr. Zubairi completed his Master of Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education with a research focus on where culture matters in day to day clinical encounters and how simulations can promote critical reflective practice. Dr. Zubairi is a member of the McMaster Autism Research Team (MacART) and sits on the executive for the Section on Developmental Pediatrics at the Canadian Pediatric Society. He is also a board member with the SAAAC Autism Centre.

Autism - Focused Screening & Diagnostic Tools: How Do We Access Best Possible Information About Diverse Individuals and Families?

In this talk, Dr. Zubairi will provide an overview of commonly used screening and diagnostic tools to help identify autism spectrum disorder, and how they create opportunities or barriers in trying to best understand the strengths, challenges and functional abilities of individuals on the autism spectrum who represent diverse cultures, histories and experiences.

Dr. Catherine Yu is a family physician at Health Access Thorncliffe Park (HATP) and Michael Garron Hospital. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. She is a passionate advocate for her patients. In her role as the medical director (physician engagement and health systems design) at HATP, she has been working diligently to establish strong, collaborative relationships between the health, social and educational agencies in Thorncliffe Park. Through these partnerships, a school-based clinic was established in the neighborhood in 2017, to help address access barriers to pediatrics and primary care, in a community with complex needs and challenges associated with the social determinants of health.

Improving Access to Interdisciplinary Paediatric and Primary Care Services Through Multisectoral Partnerships and Collaboration: The Thorncliffe Park Neighborhood Experience

Thorncliffe Park is an east Toronto neighborhood known for its diverse immigrant and newcomer population, a high birth rate and proportion of children and youth under 14 years of age, with significant health care needs

Through multisectoral partnership and collaboration, a school-based clinic was established in Thorncliffe Park Public School, to address the various barriers to accessing care in this neighborhood. This presentation will highlight some of the strategies used to deliver coordinated accessible care to families. This includes establishing strong collaborative relationships within an integrated model of care that includes the sectors of health, education, community & social services.

A family doctor by profession, Dr. Sivapalan believes in the potential for change to the current diagnostic landscape for children with Autism. After six years of a busy and fruitful family practice, Dr. Sivapalan left his practice to help facilitate this change. With an interest in child development, Dr. Sivapalan has worked collaboratively with multiple stakeholders to design the M-DOC, a unique developmental screening initiative whose goal was to increase access to diagnosis and intervention support for newcomer communities. In addition, Dr. Sivapalan helped develop the CARES initiative, which employed a task-shifting model to provide mental health support for caregivers and siblings of children with autism. As a social doer, Dr. Sivapalan has initiated and managed various social impact projects both at the local and global level. Most recently, Dr. Sivapalan became the chief operating officer for “The Dunya Project”, a Canadian agri-tech start-up that is building a connected, climate-controlled modular hydroponic habitat to alleviate the devastating gap in access to affordable foods irrespective of climate conditions.

Access for All: The Mobile Developmental Outreach Clinic

Dr. Sivapalan will provide an overview of the development and impact of the Mobile Developmental Outreach Clinic (M-DOC). The M-DOC initiative provided community-based point of care autism screening to low-income, racially diverse urban populations. The project provided an access point for families that may otherwise have had difficulties getting on a path to diagnosis and intervention. Dr. Sivapalan will examine how the M-DOC pathway ensured that children from culturally and linguistically diverse families accessed early developmental screening and interventions, and how such initiatives may be the future for autism screening in underserved communities.

Diana George is an educator and Special Needs specialist with over a decade of experience working with youth from both at-risk and Indigenous communities. Diana has taught in numerous classrooms from Northwestern Ontario to the Northwest Territories in which she has shared her love of literacy and community-based education. She is certified in Universal Design Learning, SCERTS Model, the Empower Reading Program and is also pursuing her Masters of Education in Inclusive Education. In her current role as a Program Support Teacher in Fort Simpson, NT Diana provides direct collaborative support to classroom teachers as they develop and use instructional strategies for inclusive schooling.

Nazilla Khanlou, RN, PhD, is the Women's Health Research Chair in Mental Health in the Faculty of Health at York University and an Associate Professor in its School of Nursing. Professor Khanlou's clinical background is in psychiatric nursing. Her overall program of research is situated in the interdisciplinary field of community-based mental health promotion in general, and mental health promotion among youth and women in multicultural and immigrant-receiving settings in particular. She has received grants from peer-reviewed federal and provincial research funding agencies. Dr. Khanlou was the 2011-2013 Co-Director of the Ontario Multicultural Health Applied Research Network (OMHARN). She is the founder of the International Network on Youth Integration (INYI), an international network for knowledge exchange and collaboration on youth. She has published articles, books, and reports on immigrant youth and women, and mental health. She is involved in knowledge translation to the public through media.

Dr. Nancy Freeman has dedicated her career to working with children and youth on the autism spectrum, beginning as a university student 37 years ago. For over 20 years, Dr. Freeman has worked at Surrey Place, first as a psychologist providing diagnostic services, and then clinically supervising Intensive Behavioural Intervention. For the past 15 years Dr. Freeman has been Clinical Director of Toronto Autism Services (formerly TPAS).

Dr. Freeman is an Adjunct Professor in Graduate Psychology at York University, a sustaining member and past Board member of the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis (ONTABA). Dr. Freeman has been a member and has chaired Provincial Expert Panels on behavioural treatment for children with autism, published and presented widely at conferences in areas that effect children on the autism spectrum and their families, including Intensive Behavioural Intervention, communication, best practice in assessment and diagnosis, and parenting stress and coping.

Evidence Based Early Behavioural Intervention – Access Counts!

Fifty years of research has demonstrated the effectiveness of behavioural intervention for increasing important skills and decreasing behaviours which interfere with learning or significantly interfere with quality of life (e.g., self-injury, aggression) for children with autism and their families. Early intensive behavioural intervention (IBI) is considered the “best practice” intervention for young children with autism, with remarkable effectiveness in a significant minority of children, and improvements in many others. Improving access to behavioural treatment and making culturally appropriate and sensitive adaptations is an essential priority for service providers.

Cara is a teacher in the York Region District School Board with ten years of experience. She has focused her career on teaching and learning alongside students with exceptionalities, mainly elementary-aged students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Cara holds a Master of Education with a focus on Special Education, from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and has a specialist in Special Education. In her current teaching practice, Cara facilitates learning in a community class model for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Cara strongly believes that all students have their own unique potential that can be achieved by creating and implementing educational and community programs that highlight the cognitive, social and emotional strengths of each individual. In her classroom and school, she strives to achieve a community of inclusivity, where all students learn and develop from each others’ distinct profiles.

Inclusive Education: Creating an Accessible Learning Environment for All

This concurrent session will discuss educational practices in ASD classrooms, with a focus on implementing programs where each child reaches their own potential. We will address how programs are created in conjunction with school-based professionals and Applied Behaviour Analysis principles to ensure all students access both curriculum and alternative goals.

This session will highlight ways in which community classrooms foster inclusion and acceptance of exceptional students within the school community. Additionally, it will cover how integration enhances the social and cognitive learning of individuals with ASD, as well as foster an accessible school environment where all students respect individual differences.

Melanie Penner, MD MSc FRCP(C) is a developmental paediatrician at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and a clinician investigator at the autism research centre in the Bloorview Research Institute. She is the Bloorview Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Developmental Paediatrics. She completed her Bachelor’s in Health Sciences at McMaster University, her medical degree at Queen’s University, her paediatrics residency and developmental paediatrics subspecialty residency at the University of Toronto, and her Master’s in Health Services Research at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Penner works as a developmental paediatrician performing developmental assessments, diagnosing autism spectrum disorder, and managing psychopharmacological treatment in children with complex behavioural challenges. Her research interests are in expanding and enhancing the care provided to children with autism spectrum disorder and their families in the community.

All Teach All Learn – Expanding Capacity for ASD Diagnosis and Management

In this talk, Dr. Penner will describe the Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (ECHO) model and how it has been applied in community care for autism to date. Dr. Penner is the co-lead of Project ECHO Ontario Autism and will present results from the first year of this program. She will also detail her existing research on capacity for ASD diagnosis, including her research on the question of who can diagnose autism.


Dr. Jonathan Weiss, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University (Toronto, Canada) and a Clinical Psychologist. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and University of Toronto, Dept. of Psychiatry, and held the Canadian Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research. He currently holds a York Research Chair in Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disability Mental Health. His research focuses on mental health in people with autism or intellectual disabilities, and their families, across the lifespan. He conducts studies into how people with developmental disabilities access mental health care, and is interested in their service needs, use, and experiences of crisis and wellness. He collaborates with community organizations, including the South Asian Autism Awareness Centre, to build the evidence-base for psychosocial supports that improve mental health, and received the SAAAC Excellence in Research Award in 2018 for his work.

Supporting Mental Health in With People With Autism and Their Families

People with autism often struggle with managing anxiety, anger, or depression. Family members also often experience tremendous stress and anxiety. Increasingly, cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness-based therapies are being used to help address these difficulties. These treatments are best provided within a context of promoting thriving and positive growth, within a responsive system of care. The current talk reviews the state of the evidence in understanding mental health problems, useful ways of conceptualizing mental health, and highlights evidence-based interventions that support the mental health of people on the spectrum and of their family members.

Kelly Casey is an Independent Facilitator who has been engaged over the past five years by families and agencies to assist individuals in the development of Person Directed Plans and their Network of Support

Kelly specializes in the area of developing housing supports and creative housing models. Most recently, Kelly was successful in the development, application and implementation of 8 Individualized Housing models funded through the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

Prior to independent facilitation, her work in developmental services over the last 30 years has ranged from direct support to community development. Kelly has a strong belief that being provided choice and opportunities that are community-based are the basic ingredients to building an enviable life. She also believes this cannot happen without collaboration, partnership and relationships among individuals, the private sector and public agencies. "We are all responsible for building the community we want to live in!”

Overview of Housing: An Honest Discussion

This session will focus on how families can begin planning for the future and engage others to support them in the development of individualized residential housing options for their loved ones. The following areas will be discussed:

  • Housing and Transformation of Services: The New Reality
  • Steps to Plan for your future:
    • Knowledge: Creative Housing examples from York Region
    • Get Connected: Planners and DSO Housing Coordinators
    • Visioning: Focus on the Strengths/Interests
    • Belonging: The value of Networks of Support/Friendship (Circles)
    • Partnerships: Formal and Informal
    • Max imizing your resources: Estate Planning, sharing supports, maximizing existing resources, etc.
    • Sustainability: Networks and/or Microboards

Kiruthiha Vimalakanthan, MA, is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Waterloo. Driven by her passion to improve access to mental health supports in diverse communities, Kiruthiha has consulted on various projects at the South Asian Autism Awareness Centre (SAAAC). Kiruthiha’s primary role at SAAAC is the development and supervision of the CARES initiative, which employs a task-shifting peer-based model to provide mental health support for caregivers of children with autism.

Caring for the Caregivers: The CARES Initiative

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) consistently report experiencing high levels of psychological distress. This talk provides an overview of the development and initial impact of the CARES initiative, a psychosocial intervention that equips parents with a repertoire of skills that they can use to safeguard their own mental health. Using a peer-based model, this program’s overarching goal is to provide a culturally responsive platform that can not only support skills-based learning but also foster open conversations about mental health and the shared experience of caring for a child with ASD. More broadly, this talk will discuss how low-resource initiatives such as this one have the potential to empower a community to care for their own.

Brendon Pooran is a founding Partner at PooranLaw Professional Corporation where he practices in the areas of disability law, estate planning and corporate law for not-for-profit and charitable organizations. He enjoys working with people and families on their future planning initiatives which includes will and trust planning, powers of attorney, microboards and innovative housing options. In addition to practicing law, Brendon teaches Critical Disability Law at York University, is the Past-President of Community Living York South and is a founding director of both PLAN Toronto (now Partners for Planning) and Microboards Ontario. He is also a Senior Lawyer Member on the Ontario Consent and Capacity Board.

Cheryl Wiles Pooran is an experienced human rights, labour and employment lawyer whose practice is dedicated to serving people with disabilities and social purpose organizations across Canada. Cheryl combines her focus and experience in this sector with her Bay Street labour law background to provide innovative, practical and cost-effective legal services to her clients.

As leader of PooranLaw’s labour and employment team, Cheryl provides a broad range of human rights, labour and employment services to not-for-profit employers and families. In addition, Cheryl brings her passion for equality, inclusion and accessibility to the classroom as a Human Rights and Health Law lecturer at York University.

Prior to joining PooranLaw, Cheryl practised labour and employment law with a large international law firm and a boutique labour firm in Toronto. Cheryl was also privileged to serve as a Case Worker with Parkdale Community Legal Services (a legal aid clinic in Toronto), to intern with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Terrorism in Geneva, Switzerland and with the Human Resources Administration of New York, New York.

Direct Funding and Employment Law - Information Session for Families Engaging Workers

Direct funding, such as Passport or SSAH, is great for flexibility and freedom of choice but it also comes with responsibility. Private workers can have employment related rights or can file claims if they are injured on the job.

It’s important for families receiving direct funding to understand the options and obligations that come with direct funding. This is especially important now because there has been a lot of change when it comes to employment standards legislation over the last year which has led to confusion for families and private workers alike. This information and training session for people and families engaging private workers. This sessions will review:

  • Recent developments affecting direct funding and private support workers;
  • How you determine what obligations you have to your private worker;
  • What steps you can take to protect your loved one with a disability and your family, and ensure positive relationships with your private workers; and
  • Free resources to help you manage your worker relationship and ensure compliance with the law.

Joanna Samuels, B.Ed. (A E), M.Ed. CMF, RRP, CTDP, is the Employment Resource Supervisor at Reena. She has over a decade of frontline experience as a job developer, job coach and pre-employment facilitator in the supported employment sector. In addition, Joanna’s expertise is helping persons with various disabilities and multi-barriers with reaching their employment, career and educational goals. She also specializes in helping employers with diversity recruitment and with building an inclusive workforce as well as staff training.

Joanna is a certified Personality Dimensions Facilitator as well as certified Life Skills Coach. She is a featured employment advice columnist and blogger with,’s Kelly & Company, and Further, Joanna has recently published “Letters to the Job Coach: Practical, No-Nonsense Advice from a Frontliner Who "Gets It” on; and is featured in journals and industry magazines including Abilities, Autism Matters and Rehab Matters. Joanna is a frequent guest speaker and workshop facilitator on topics related to employment and careers.

Inclusion in the Labour Market: Supported Employment with Persons with Development Disabilities at Reena and in the Community

The interactive presentation will help attendees understand the concepts of supported employment services and navigating the system with the goal of increasing awareness of the employability of individuals with developmental disabilities. The talk will also provide strategies in helping organizations prepare, obtain, and maintain employment for clients in a the competitive local labour market.

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A 2-day workshop held at one of Toronto’s most inspiring conference spaces.

This year’s event will be hosted at the Institute for Learning (IFL), one of Toronto’s premier conference facilities located in the northeast end of the city. IFL was designed by Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama , internationally renowned for his stunning designs that incorporate nature and encourage collaboration.

Access Counts will be hosted in the newly renovated Presentation Hall that allows for an immersive AV experience with a large-format video wall, HD theatre quality A/V and ambient lighting.

On-site accommodations are provided to our sponsors including breakfast and dinner prepared by award winning Executive Chef Murray Hall.