In celebration of National Autism Awareness Month, Happiness House is seeking to raise awareness — as well as funds for its autism services and programs — at its upcoming Autism Awareness Walk.
As a first-time mother, Laura Albert remembers being concerned when her young son wasn’t reaching his developmental milestones.
“As a baby, he was delayed in some of his milestones,” said Albert, of Canandaigua. “He didn’t crawl at the right time. He wasn’t walking. He was delayed in his speech.”
Her son Dylan’s pediatrician chalked it up to the anxiety of a first-time parent — but Albert knew differently.
“In the beginning, it was a struggle to get help,” she said. “As a mom, I knew there was just something that wasn’t right.”
Dylan, now 5, was diagnosed with autism in September 2010.
Now a student in Happiness House’s autism-based integrated preschool classroom at its Canandaigua location, Dylan has also received occupational and music therapy from the nonprofit organization.
“They’ve just done so much for Dylan,” said Albert. “To see him now making complete sentences and interacting with others — he’s come so far. It’s just amazing to look back three years ago and see where he is now.”
Next Saturday, April 27, Albert and her family will lead the way in Happiness House’s Autism Awareness Walk at Eastview Mall. As honorary chair, Albert has helped organize the walk to benefit Happiness House and also increase awareness of autism as part of National Autism Awareness Month.
According to autism science and advocacy organization Autism Speaks, autism spectrum disorder and autism refer to a group of complex disorders of brain development that are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Autism spectrum disorder can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances.
Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual, music and academic skills, according to Autism Speaks, and about 40 percent have average to above-average intellectual abilities.
Albert said she believes there are misconceptions among the general public about autism.
“As a parent who has a child with autism, it’s not any different,” Albert said. “It’s a different parenting style, and you have to fight harder for your child. It’s challenging, but it’s rewarding at the same time.”
Brooke Carlson, a senior at Canandaigua Academy, is participating in the Autism Awareness Walk for the third year in honor of her brother, Dylan, who has been diagnosed with autism. She is also selling T-shirts and bracelets to raise funds for the Happiness House, and is spreading the word about the event at school.
Carlson also has a message to spread about people who have been diagnosed with autism.
“Even though there is a difference, there really isn’t one,” she said. “They’re just like us. We’re all the same. They shouldn’t be judged.”
Page 2 of 2 - Finding support, services
Albert said that after her son was diagnosed with autism, the next step was connecting him with the appropriate programs and services in coordination with Happiness House.
“I didn’t know anything about it; I didn’t know what the services were out there,” Albert said. “ ... It did surprise me all the resources that weren’t available unless you knew who to ask or who to contact. It’s sad to know there are children out there who are going through what we’re going through, but who don’t have the support.”
Happiness House — which provides programs and services for children and adults with and without disabilities and their families in Ontario, Wayne, Yates and Seneca counties — offers numerous autism services and programs, said Cheryl Schaefer-Coppola, development director for Finger Lakes United Cerebral Palsy Inc./Happiness House. They include a clinic that opened in 2010 to provide diagnoses and treatment options, as well as service coordinators to follow up with families to assist them with seeking additional evaluations and appropriate service options. Happiness House also provides speech, physical and occupational therapy; community habilitation; and a support group.
“We’ve expanded our programs and services to meet the needs of families in different ways,” said Schaefer-Coppola.
The organization also offers a full-day integrated preschool program, specifically for children with autism, at its Canandaigua and Geneva locations.
Heather Roller, special education teacher in the autism-based integrated classroom in Canandaigua, said the classroom includes children who have been diagnosed with autism and those who have not, who serve as “role models.” She said the children who have been diagnosed with autism mirror the role models.
“They are able to imitate the typical role models, to be able to participate in activities, play appropriately with toys,” Roller said.
Schaefer-Coppola said that the upcoming Autism Awareness Walk will raise funds for the organization’s autism programs and services, with a goal of $25,000. The walk — which already has more than 200 walkers registered — is also an opportunity to boost awareness about people in the community who have been diagnosed with autism, she said.
“We have to educate the community about the challenges they face,” she said. “They still want to be respected and want to be treated the same way as everyone else. ... I want to convey a positive message that they can do anything — they just do it a little differently.”