As the mom of a 15-year-old daughter on the autism spectrum, sometimes the thing Paula Hamilton needs most is to know her family isn’t alone.
When she found out that Autism Society Central Ohio (ASCO) was establishing a Coffee, Tea, Autism and More support group in Licking County, she decided to join.
“I just think it helps to know there are other parents out there who have the same issues,” she said. “Being able to talk to someone else has been so nice.”
Attending the meetings gave her the opportunity to share her experiences while also taking time for self care. She even got the opportunity to try restorative yoga.
As ASCO transitions back to in person activities, Paula said she’s looking forward to participating in more meetings and events.
“To me, the support they give parents has been great,” she said.
‘With families in the here and now’
Although COVID-19 has brought major changes, ASCO has continued to provide resources and support for families in Licking County and around Central Ohio.
An affiliate of the Autism Society of America the group works to improve the lives of everyone impacted by autism, said Ginny Bryan, a resource specialist for ASCO.
“We are the boots on the ground, we are with the families in the here and now,” she said.
In years past, the group has offered a variety of sensory friendly events, from Easter egg hunts to pool parties. But since the pandemic began, most of their activities have moved to Zoom, Ginny said.
That hasn’t stopped them from connecting families with information, making referrals and providing virtual classes.
One of their most popular support groups, Coffee, Tea, Autism and More, is also going strong online.
“The great thing about Zoom is there is no travel time and you don’t need to get a sitter,” Ginny said. “You can join from the comfort of your own home.”
ASCO supports the local volunteers who facilitate the groups in each county.
“We believe the best advice you are going to get is from families who have been there, done that,” Ginny said.
ASCO also offers support groups for those with specific needs. Licking County’s virtual Coffee, Tea and Autism and More: High Resources, focuses on families of children whose symptoms may be more pronounced and affect their daily lives to a great extent. ASCO also recently started a group for adults with autism, run by volunteer facilitators who are on the spectrum.
“We want people to know they are not alone,” Ginny said. “We want to encourage families throughout their journey, provide resources and help them celebrate small victories.”
From awareness to acceptance
Although ASCO advocates for families every day, this April is especially significant for the organization, Ginny said.
ASCO has joined other Autism Society affiliates around the country in pushing local, state and federal leaders to refer to the month of April as Autism Acceptance Month, instead of Autism Awareness Month.
“In furtherance of our mission to improve the lives of all affected by autism, we are working to move from the passive idea of autism ‘awareness’ to ‘acceptance’ and, ultimately, ‘action’ to assure full inclusion for all,” ASCO Managing Director, Kathi Machle, wrote in a press release. “ASCO continues to provide events, education and activities aimed at full admittance to society of all with disabilities.”
Many people are better informed on the signs of autism, the prevalence of the disorder — 1 in every 54 children are on the spectrum — and different therapies that are available. But additional work needs to be done to increase opportunities in education, employment and accessibility, according to the release.
Advocacy efforts around the state resulted in Ohio Governor Mike Dewine issuing a proclamation declaring April “Autism Acceptance Month” and information about the change has circulated on social media.
As the acceptance movement gains momentum. ACSO continues to work to connect as many families to their services as possible. On April 29 they are partnering with The Arc of Ohio and OCALI for a Zoom panel about life after diagnosis. They’ve also participated in interviews with local media outlets.
“We need to get the word out,” Ginny said. “Things like support groups are only successful if we have people attending them.”
Doing life together
For the past three years, Joanna Lawrence has facilitated the Licking County Coffee, Tea, Autism and More group in Pataskala.
Her son Alex, has a diagnosis of SETD5, a genetic disorder that’s linked to autism. Since her son’s developmental disability is accompanied by medical conditions, she felt like she had valuable insight to support other parents.
“My gosh, the amount of people I’ve met, that I’ve been able to talk with and share our story with,” she said. “It’s nice to discuss with the other parents and know that you are not the only parents going through something. We are not going to judge, they know their kids the best and we are there to support them.”
Many parents have questions related to schools and IEP meetings so the group has attended school board meetings and coached parents on what to expect from local districts.
“For new parents who are going through the journey, this is hard and we will hold your hand,” Joanna said. “It empowers people to stand out in the community as well and say, ‘I want to make a difference. My kid has something to offer. My family has something to offer.’”
ASCO has always been supportive of group facilitators, but since COVID-19 hit, the organization has been especially valuable — providing information to help support groups continue and getting creative about offering safe, socially distanced events, Joanna said.
Although Zoom meetings have been challenging for some group members, Joanna has tried to keep in touch with families by phone. She’s looking forward to resuming in person meetings soon.
Licking County’s Coffee, Tea, Autism and More group is open to any family of a child with autism or other disabilities and new members are always welcome.
“Come and share your experiences, share your life with us,” she said. “Let us help you do life together. We are on the same path, on the same journey.”
Upcoming event: Planning for Life After Diagnosis: On April 29, ASCO will join with The Arc of Ohio and OCALI for a Zoom panel presentation on resources and strategies to navigate challenges, systems and therapies after a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. For more information, go to www.autismcentralohio.org.