Walking a mile in autism’s shoes

    Three-year-old Keith seemed content as he passed under the festive blue-and-white balloon arch. His mom, Amiee, held one hand. My daughter, Amy, held the other. It was a testament to the power of parental love paired with early intervention and preschool education.

    Keith is a student at the Elwyn Seedlings Early Care and Education Center for preschoolers with autism, where Amy is a teacher.

    Under the circumstances, the behavior of this little guy in the gray-and-red sweat suit spoke volumes. We were in the midst of more than 15,000 people participating in an annual one-mile walk at Citizens Bank Park earlier this month. The event benefitted Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to funding research, increasing awareness and family services, and advocating for those who walk in autism’s shoes.

    The sights, sounds and smells at such an event might easily overstimulate an autistic boy or girl. Such overstimulation might lead that child to take off running, as some children with autism tend to do, or behave disruptively. Linked to knowing hands, Keith simply watched the upbeat parade of grown-ups and kids, strollers and wagons, as he moseyed along.

    Challenges, passion, accomplishments

    Amy taught me most of what I know about autism. Her calling to teach preschoolers with autism found her after she graduated from St. Joseph’s University with a degree in criminal justice. Like her colleagues at Seedlings, she works hard mentally and physically to find the right formula for each student to learn basic life skills that a lot of us take for granted.

    Youngsters with autism face varying degrees of challenges, which their loved ones face with them. Areas of concern include socializing or learning how to play with other children, developing verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and managing repetitive behaviors. Some of those repetitive behaviors are dangerous to the children themselves or to others, which the child who acts out does not realize.

    Amy’s passion for her students, and her deep respect for Seedlings teachers, is contagious. Her stories about the accomplishments of anonymous children with autism are poignant — a 4-year-old girl who speaks for the first time (and in full sentences); a 4-year-old boy who gradually learns how to interact and enjoy playing with another child.

    So when my daughter said that Seedlings teacher Jessica Peruso was rallying troops at work to organize a “Seedlings Walks 4 Autism” team, I said “Count me in.”

    Resources for all steps of life

    Keith’s mom, Amiee, joined the Seedlings team to show her support for people with autism. She walked last year with a more specific goal in mind, she said: She was on a mission to find ways to help her son.

    “It really helped,” she said, noting the information available at the event’s resource fair. Amiee, who also researches autism extensively online, emphasized how important it is for parents to learn everything possible to assist their children. “Some people say there’s not a cure and there’s nothing you can do,” she said, exasperated. “That’s not true. There’s a lot you can do.”

    Another mother, Leslie, who attended one of the first Autism Speaks gatherings years ago, strolled alone. She came in search of resources for young adults with autism, information that might be helpful to her 24-year-old daughter Lynn. Lynn attended college, and she blogs and volunteers.

    Social groups, founded by parents, meet some of Lynn’s and her friends’ socialization needs. “But my daughter wants to work,” Leslie said with a sigh.

    “Young adults with autism need employment. Employers are wary, because they don’t understand that each autistic person is different and has different abilities,” Leslie explained. “Employers just have to open the door.”

    It could happen some day. As Keith grows up, he’ll continue to find support from organizations like Autism Speaks — through legislative efforts and outreach to employers to help them recognize the strengths of individuals with autism.

    As the walk wound down and the Elwyn Seedlings crew gathered outside of the main entrance of Citizens Bank Park, members of other teams stopped by to say hello.

    “There’s Miss Jess,” said the mother of a former Seedlings student who walked with his family’s team. The little boy lit up. His former teacher glowed. There were hugs and greetings. All the while, that child wore the sweetest smile. After they said their goodbyes, the boy repeatedly glanced back at the educator who had helped him to overcome his obstacles.

    It was a championship of another sort on display at the ballpark that day. When autism speaks, it has a lot to say.

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