A small crowd gathered for an annual Autism Awareness proclamation in Central Park Friday, but this year’s event was bigger than previous years’.
Kids played as parents went from table to table, speaking with reps from local businesses, first responders and other community members.
Organizer Jessica Darner, an autism advocate who works at Fundamentals Therapy, said the city has had an Autism Awareness proclamation for the last three years, but this is the first full-scale event.
“Families with autism, they’re not the ones this day is for,” Darner said. “They’re aware. They live with this 24/7. Awareness day is for the community, business professionals, first responders and things like that. My biggest hope is that they can slowly start educating in whatever area they’re in.”
Darner said community awareness is a constant concern for autistic adults and families with autistic children. At the same time, families might not know about every resource available to them, hence the need for a bigger event.
“As a city, we’re not really aware of the resources that are available and these families kind of feel lost and secluded in these communities and I really believe every individual in this community has a place,” Darner said. “If we could just figure out how to support them and help them thrive in this community that’s what we want to do.”
Urban Air Trampoline Park, Ardmore YMCA, Shannon Crites School of Dance, Ardmore Fire Department and Ardmore Police Department all attended the event to meet with families, learn about the needs of people with autism and tell families about the services they offer. The YMCA offers sensory-friendly swim days and Shannon Crites School of Dance teaches hip-hop classes for students with autism.
“In order to know what an individual’s needs are, you need to learn about them,” Darner said. “This brings that awareness full circle.”
The Texoma Autism and Behavior Intervention School, a new school being created in Marietta specifically for autistic students, participated in the event as well. The school is in the planning stages and will hold an open house in May and are scheduled to open in September.
APD officer Mike Castanos attended the event as well, passing out forms to families that will let them enter their autistic family members into a database maintained by APD. The department began keeping records of autistic individuals earlier this year. The extra information could be crucial if the person goes missing, or if emergency responders are called. People on the autism spectrum often communicate in different ways or not at all, something police aren’t always prepared to recognize or deal with.
“It will increase awareness among our officers that the individual we’re speaking to might be autistic,” Castanos said.
Castanos said the department is also looking into officer training to teach them how to interact with autistic individuals.
Ardmore Vice Mayor Sheryl Ellis read this year’s proclamation to the crowd, designating April as Autism Awareness Month, next week as Autism Awareness Week and April 23 as Autism Awareness Day.
“Whereas it is fitting and proper to ensure that individuals with autism have access to the lifelong care and services needed to achieve their greatest potential,” Ellis said. “I… urge our citizens to learn about services, programs and opportunities to support people with autism and their loves ones.”
After the proclamation, Nicholas Waters performed an acapella rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend” as arranged by James Taylor.
“I just have a really big heart for community involvement and helping out these families,” Darner said. “Working closely with these families, I realize there’s a really big need in this town.