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Read Aloud Webcast, Upcoming Movie Matinee Promote Autism Awareness



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The background was a bit different than First Selectman Dan Rosenthal’s weekly read aloud audience was used to.

Normally, the first selectman and members of his family — occasionally along with their pets — gather at their Newtown home for a regular Saturday read out loud event on Facebook Live.

But, as promised to help continue the celebration of Autism Awareness Month and the local autism support nonprofit Families United in Newtown (FUN), Rosenthal streamed his reading from Miami along with daughter Emi, as they completed a college visit.

The reading of the new children’s book My Brother Charlie, by best selling author Holly Robinson Peete, was made even more special because Emi Rosenthal is among the several dozen Newtown High School National Honors Society students who work closely with FUN on the activities being hosted for local youths on the spectrum and their families this year.

Recommended and provided by the C.H. Booth Library, My Brother Charlie is described as “a heartwarming story about a boy who happens to be autistic, based on Holly’s son, who has autism.” A recording of the reading is posted on FUN’s Facebook page, facebook.com/familiesunitedinnewtown.

Residents may have also noticed that a number of local sites, including Edmond Town Hall and the United Methodist Church in Sandy Hook, have been lit up blue in recognition of local families with members diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and related conditions like Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive development disorder (PDD).

The C.H. Booth Library also has an autism awareness station on display with information of interest to the community.

The month of activities kicked off on April 2, World Autism Day; the momentum continued with an Easter-themed outdoor gathering the following afternoon for approximately two dozen youths and nearly as many Honors Society students and volunteers at the Newtown Congregational Church, where attendees danced, made Easter cards, enjoyed socializing and refreshments, and held a pair of egg hunts.

On Friday mornings throughout April, some of those same NHS student volunteers are participating in morning announcements containing brief but important facts about autism to promote acceptance and breaking down stigmas about the condition.

Sandy Hook’s Queen Street Gifts is offering FUN-branded “Light It Up Blue” merchandise, and New Insights Boutique, Newtown Hardware, and Butcher’s Best market are selling blue Autism Month light bulbs.

See Video Clips

Beginning April 18, visit familiesunitedinnewtown.org or the nonprofit’s Facebook page to see video clips introducing the community to the multiple talents and life skills of kids who have been part of FUN over the last 11 years.

And on April 25, FUN, in partnership with the Newtown Community Center, will welcome more than 160 attendees to a screening of filmmaker Jon Favreau’s take on Disney’s The Lion King at the Edmond Town Hall Theatre. For an admission donation of $5, attendees can qualify to win one of numerous donated door prizes and additional FUN and Light It Up Blue merchandise; there will also be a raffle, and baked goods and water will be for sale in the lobby.

FUN founder Linda Jones said 100 percent of proceeds from the pop-up tables at local merchants and the movie screening will be added to running donations FUN and its student volunteers have been making to Dr Margaret Bauman. Bauman is a distinguished pediatric neurologist and research investigator who has been a pioneer in the study and treatment of autism for more than 25 years, according to her biography.

For tickets to the FUN movie screening event, visit https://families-united-in-newtown.ticketleap.com/lion-king.

Autism Speaks Responds

On April 1, Dr Pam Dixon, director of clinical services at the global nonprofit Autism Speaks, chatted with The Newtown Bee about a number of related issues her organization is promoting during Autism Awareness Month. Autism Speaks pioneered the concept of using blue lights to promote World Autism Day, which has since grown to be a monthlong activity.

Dixon said today, an estimated one in 54 children have some type of diagnosable autism spectrum condition. She explained that ASD involves challenges with social functioning and social communication, often accompanied by repetitive behaviors and/or overfocused interests that can interfere or overwhelm daily life.

She said many affected individuals wish to be referred to using a “person first” descriptor. Someone who prefers person-first language might ask to be called a person with autism, in contrast with someone who prefers identity-first language, who might ask to be called an autistic person.

“I would say to just be sure to understand how each individual person wants to be referred to,” Dixon said.

To create and support a program for a child on the spectrum, Dixon said parents can get a reliable diagnosis of ASD in a child as young as 18 months.

“But parents often report seeing signs as early as 12 months — difficulty with eye contact, or a child not responding to their names, a lack of pointing or waving for attention or for getting things, or if a child is doing repetitive things with objects or flicking fingers or arms,” she said.

If a parent sees these or other signs like a sudden retraction of socializing or interacting with others, Autism Speaks can help by providing a screening tool.

“This is a two-minute screening questionnaire that parents or caregivers can complete, print out, and take to their pediatricians to express concern and have a conversation about it,” Dixon said. “The pediatric community, I think, is very focused on lowering the age of diagnosis — and are very cognizant of the time sensitive nature of an autism diagnosis.”

If parents and caregivers are noticing possible signs of ASD, but are inclined to wait in the hope their child will grow out of it, Dixon said research shows that “early and intensive intervention can make a huge difference in a child’s development.”

“We want children to be able to get that early diagnosis so they can access services,” she said. “That’s going to help them better develop their speech, and promote their cognitive development, and to learn living skills.”

It also helps parents get an early start in developing skills and strategies to support their child’s development, she added.

The COVID Factor

Autism Speaks issues information in a number of languages besides English, and the agency’s Autism Response Team is armed with all the ways callers can access support where they live.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused more children to go undiagnosed, as well, Dixon said.

“Because of sheltering in place, families may not be able to access health providers the way they were able to beforehand. That has resulted in longer waiting lists for evaluations,” she said. “And in many communities, these wait lists were already there before the pandemic.”

So Dixon is recommending using the screener document so when opportunities develop to get evaluated, families will be equipped to take the best advantage of the support.

Finally, she addressed how stigmatizing individuals with ASD and related conditions also often stigmatizes their entire family or support circle.

“Seeing stigmatizing has a big impact, I think, because it makes caregivers and parents hesitant to seek out a diagnosis. In that way it can result in a child [being deprived of] services and supports as early as they otherwise might,” she said.

Autism Speaks, on a much larger scale but similar scope as FUN, is offering video testimonials and stories highlighting both those diagnosed with ASD and their families, to help others understand how those diagnosed are reaching their potential because of appropriate support,” Dixon said.

The one thing that gets to Dixon is when she hears someone say individuals with autism are all the same.

“People with autism are like anyone else,” she said. “They have their own individual characteristics and strengths and things that need shoring up. So it’s simply unfair to describe everyone with autism as the same.”

To learn more about FUN, to support the cause, or to get involved with a child on the spectrum, visit FUN’s website or Facebook page.

Anyone with questions about April activities or the organization can call or text Jones at 203-512-6284.

Linda Jones, founder of the local nonprofit autism support network Families United in Newtown stands beside an Autism Awareness Month exhibit at the C.H. Booth Library. Jones helped a number of local partners promote and celebrate Autism Awareness Month this April, including the local library. —photo courtesy Linda Jones
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, assisted by his daughter Emi, reads the children’s book My Brother Charlie on Facebook Live, April 11, as part of an Autism Awareness Month activity promoted by Families United in Newtown, a local autism support nonprofit.
A group of Families United in Newtown (FUN) members celebrated Autism Awareness Month with volunteers from the Newtown High School National Honors Society during an April 3 meeting and Easter-themed event at the Newtown Congregational Church. —photo courtesy FUN
From left, Payton Bradley, Chris Simon, and Claire Fiordelisi were among dozens of FUN members and volunteers who attended the group’s April 3 meeting and Easter-themed event. —photo courtesy FUN
Families United in Newtown volunteers, from left, Kevin Curry and Linda and Bill Soter, took a moment to relax during the April 3 meeting and event at the Newtown Congregational Church. —photo courtesy FUN
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