“The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.”
-Robert F. Kennedy
When Ely Golden was born in 1999, his parents couldn’t have known that his young life would be the inspiration for the First Canada-Israel Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Symposium, held on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem in March 2014.
The symposium brought together the highest-level biomedical and clinical researchers in the field of autism from Canada and Israel, with the hope that they would begin collaborating on innovative ASD research projects. Close to 50 scientific and poster sessions were presented to a group of 70 world-class autism researchers, including a delegation of 10 from Canada. Beyond bringing autism researchers together to join forces to advance the field, the symposium was also a chance to dispel myths about Israel. Many of the Canadian researchers had never been to Israel. As part of the symposium, participants were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at Israel, through the eyes of their fellow scientists.
The story behind the conference is, in the end, a story about a mom. Ely Golden’s mom. Her name is Connie Putterman and, in many ways, this conference is an expression of who Connie Putterman is in the world, weaving together four significant threads in Connie’s life.
The primary thread is the Putterman-Golden family’s involvement within the ASD research community. From the time Ely was diagnosed as being on the spectrum at 17 months old, Connie and her husband, David Golden, became intimately involved with the autism research community in their Canadian city. Connie, in particular, participated in dozens of studies, filled out reams of parent questionnaires and was interviewed countless times, all to provide crucial data to Canada’s autism researchers. This 14 year-long partnership with clinicians and the best minds in autism research made putting together the Canadian delegation nearly effortless.
Israel is the second thread. Connie and David are lay leaders in their local Jewish community and their children attend Jewish day schools in Toronto. These activities put them in regular contact with ex-pat Israelis living in Canada. Over the years, the Putterman-Goldens have built multiple bridges and have nurtured many personal connections in Israel. In addition, Connie’s service as a board member with the Canadian Friends of The Hebrew University in Toronto made the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University an ideal venue to host the symposium.
Serving as the nerve center for the entire symposium, Connie, who founded the Canada Israel Autism Research Initiative, secured financial support from private donors as well as from the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, the Israel Canada Institute for Medical Research, the Ontario Brain Institute, the Azrieli Foundation and NeuroDevNet. But that wasn’t all. As a lifelong runner, Connie raised additional funds through her personal participation in the Tel Aviv marathon.
The final thread is Connie’s own commitment to facilitating collaboration. Each presenter at the conference was hand-picked for his or her expertise, and the entire event was orchestrated to promote synergy – fulfilling Connie’s vision of a different way to approach collaboration. Not content with a one-off event, even one on this scale, Connie has dreams for the next stage of this collaboration. There’s the Second Canada-Israel Autism Spectrum Disorder Symposium to look forward to, which she hopes will be held in Canada in two years. And her magnificent vision - a research incubator where ASD scientists can share lab and office space as they apply for and complete grant-funded projects.
For three glorious days in Jerusalem, autism research, Israel, fundraising, marathon running, lay leadership and the impassioned parenting of a very special young man on the autism spectrum all came together.
Robert F. Kennedy would no doubt be proud. Connie Putterman has, indeed, done her part to make things better.
Rivkah Lambert Adler
This is a modified version of an article originally published in March 2014 with the title, “The Universality of Autism" in several Canadian online and print publications.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.