It’s hard to imagine that a casual meeting over a short stack of pancakes at IHOP turned into one of the most innovative, autistic support groups in Southern California. Or how a parent became involved with an Indiana-based nonprofit when his life changed forever following the diagnosis of his 5-year-old son.
“It’s very hard for these individuals in that they feel really isolated,” said Uttal. “They have difficulty making friends and communication struggles. By having a group, they can find each other and have a reference point that they’re not alone. By leveraging the power of many, we are able to address some of the underlying problems the community is facing and work to resolve them.”
Uttal’s journey with autism began when her son was diagnosed more than 20 years ago. At the time, there was no awareness, no support, and most schools were not properly equipped. She knows it can be scary as a parent to worry that your child might not be able to financially support him or herself.
A Long Road
The problems people with autism face range from social skills, to finding a job, and living independently after standard school years. Unfortunately, Uttal said many resources and educational needs virtually evaporate after a child with autism reaches 18. This is why OCASG works on providing support through shared experience, as well as a range of activities for members.
Activities are broken into three categories: social, educational, and support. Social activities are held to build connections and encourage organic friendships. Uttal said it is very isolating for a parent when everyone else’s child is getting invited to parties, and your child isn’t because they are different. Which makes this unique pocket of support in Orange County so crucial for children and their families.
Another activity is a monthly support meeting for parents of children with autism, and adults with autism. The group plans activities from an educational standpoint such hosting speakers who help to educate on topics like government services and qualifications. There is also a series on essential skills that will focus on three different topics throughout the year, such as moving out of a parent’s home, finding a job, and building relationships.
“It’s so hard for them to be successful in our society and to find a job, either because they don’t have the social skills, or companies don’t feel comfortable hiring them. If you think about two percent of society being un-hirable, you realize how scary that is.”
There is a lot of work to be done, and that is what Uttal focuses on. She wants to work on expanding job opportunities in her community.
She urges parents who have children with autism to find a support system. Bond with other families, lean on, share problems, and seek solutions together, but above all else, be hopeful.
Thrown for a Loop
For Arrick Garringer, autism didn’t enter his life until his youngest twin was diagnosed with autism at the age of 5. That’s when his world was thrown for a loop.
“For me personally, I didn’t know anything about it,” Garringer said. Luckily, he and his wife found Interlock, which helped put them in contact with local service providers in the area and gave them people to lean on for support.
Now, as a board member, Garringer works with the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Interlock East Central Indiana is run by parents and educators of individuals with autism. According to Garringer, Interlock’s goal is to assist and educate families in East Central Indiana who are affected by autism spectrum disorder. The group also works to aid local special education classrooms and accommodate the needs of the students. Interlock is currently working on its 12th annual fundraiser.
Its main event is an Autism Awareness Fest, which includes a 5K race and fundraiser. “We’re really excited about the 5K and acceptance walk because it helps provide resources and information to parents,” said Garringer. “Families can learn what’s available. There will be refreshments, face painting, and bounce houses for the kids. It’s really become a celebration.”
All funds raised during the month of April are spent back in the local autism community. The group has established a grant program that provides special equipment or software needed for classrooms. These tools help remove social barriers and aid children with autism in navigating the world. Another mission is to provide support and build connections.
"We go to the YMCA on special days,” Garringer said. “It may seem like a normal thing to walk into a YMCA, but for our small group it means a lot. We have trips to the movie theater, and the theater will turn down the lights and sound. We go swimming in the summer. It’s a support organization and we also try to build connections and friendships.”
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Originally published 3/31/17