Every year, CNN recognizes people around the country as “everyday heroes who change the world.” This year, one of Philadelphia’s own has been nominated.
Dr. Wendy Ross, a developmental pediatrician in the Philadelphia area, has been recognized as one of the “Top Ten CNN Heros of 2014” for her inclusive community work on behalf of children with autism.
The CNN Hero of the Year will be chosen through online voting, open until Nov. 16.
Ross’ organization, Autism Air Resources (AIR), is designed to help children and families with autism and the community.
Ross describes the following experience as a way to demonstrate the challenges that children and families dealing with autism often face when they out into community settings. Ross formed AIR hoping to transform community experiences for families of children with autism.
“You remember your parents taking you to see the Phillies every year. You have thought about sharing the experience with your own children from the day they were born. You have not attempted to go until today. You are waiting on line to enter the ball park when your son gets jostled. He covers his ears and begins to rock back and forth. You try to calm him before he starts to scream. People start to stare. Several leave the line. It is your turn to walk in, and everyone seems impatient. You decide to leave. Your son has autism, and sometimes typical family experiences seem out of reach. It will be years before you try again.”
AIR works by providing children with autism supported community experiences (attending a Phillies game, navigating the airport, taking a trip to Target). These experiences are carefully designed to lead individuals with autism towards both community integration and independence.
What follows is an interview with Ross about the CNN recognition, her work and her organization.
What is the goal of your organization, Autism Air Resources?
Every time I give a diagnosis as a developmental pediatrician, I feel the need to compensate by making some part of life with autism easier. Traditionally most resources in the world of autism have gone to researching the cause or the cure, rather than living to potential with it. Community interventions have focused on events or individuals instead of everyday access and an overall supportive environment.
I have a mission in mind, to increase independence in the community for those with autism and related disorders. I firmly believe that the AIR programs are like ramps for wheelchairs. Just as ramps were designed for wheelchairs but are helpful to those with walkers and mothers with strollers, this program can help others who need social support and learning in the community. The aging population, vets returning with PTSD and TBIs, and those with mental illnesses are just a few of the other groups who could potentially benefit from AIR’s work. With public awareness and support, preparation, and collaboration, we can all lead more independent lives and everyone benefits.
How does it work?
AIR works by preparing families and by preparing the people in community settings, providing supported experiences on both sides, measuring outcomes, creating best practices and implementing them in as many places as possible. We fulfill the potential of families and also provide opportunities for additional streams of revenue for businesses.
How did you find out you were nominated for CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of 2014?
Someone nominated me. I do not know them personally. CNN called me and asked me general questions prior to disclosing that they were interested in me for the CNN heroes program. Working with the CNN team has been exciting in that they are helping all of us (nominees) achieve our goals by raising awareness.
What would winning the contest do for AIR?
In addition to providing AIR with funding, I am hopeful that the CNN Heroes Program will connect AIR with other resources and groups who feel strongly about AIR’s mission and can help me take the program to the next level. The programs I have created for museums, air travel and sports teams for families affected by autism, are only the first generation of the model. There are so many other things I want to try to do to help my families.
I want to measure outcomes of our community work and find and implement the best practices so that those practices can be disseminated and delivered with fidelity. In other words, going to Target in Philadelphia should be as good an experience as going to Target in San Francisco.
I want to further identify barriers to participation and break them down, to build a better future for everyone. To affect the kind of change we need as a society will require resources and an infrastructure that I cannot create on my own. I am a clinician, and I have clinical ideas. But I cannot do the research on my own, and I need help raising money.
What have been some unexpected findings in creating AIR?
Some of the outcomes to the application of the AIR model that have been unexpected are the employees who have disclosed that they are on the autism spectrum. And where I thought that my extra educational session might be a burden to overworked employees, it instead improved employee engagement and excitement. I am not alone in liking to help other people. Employees frequently expressed feeling inspired by the ideas or participation in an AIR family experience. They got as hooked as I have. Once you help someone fly, it is hard to turn back!
How does AIR differ from other autism support organizations?
I am excited that other autism groups have taken on the ideas AIR initiated. I understand that some have subsequently partnered with airlines and been running airport practices based on the AIR model. My concern is that whereas the goal seems to be familiarization, my goal has always been to improve functioning. The level of clinical support in the community in my program is intentionally different. AIR is designed to provide live strategies, to model support for the community, and to provide more of a safety net. This is what many families will need to reach their potential and to have their children become independent adults. I wish that groups seeking to improve community functioning for those on the spectrum would partner up with us in a meaningful way. If we work together, we can improve lives faster.
What’s next for AIR?
I have deferred a great deal of income and family life to dedicate to AIR’s mission. The successes of the families I have helped have been beyond rewarding. Recently however, my husband was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. I need to raise funds in order to continue my work and get to the next level of funding so that AIR can be a sustainable, scalable, replicable model. Winning the CNN Hero prize and finding financially supportive community partners is critical to continuing the work.