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For Community Partners, Autism Awareness Is Not Confined To April

Published: April 22, 2017 at 12:00 am

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For the local grassroots organization Families United in Newtown (FUN), as well as the established service bureau at Newtown Youth & Family Services (NYFS), focus around autism awareness happens 12 months a year. But during April - Autism Awareness Month - both organizations are exploring a new partnership that could expand opportunities for youngsters and young adults on the spectrum.


After several years building a successful partnership with student members of the Newtown High School National Honor Society, FUN founder Linda Jones has one of the largest and most active contingents of students supporting activities for kids on the spectrum, and their parents.


Ms Jones started fundraising in 2008 with a dream of providing recreational programs and respite for families with special needs children. One year later, following the tragic death of her son, Tyler, the program blossomed.


In October 2010 the group held its first monthly meeting in memory of Tyler, and has hosted regular meetings ever since throughout the school year. In recent years, Ms Jones has tapped her broadening network of musicians and music lovers, putting on well-attended concerts that have helped raise funds toward added programming.


The ultimate goal of FUN is to provide a recreational outlet for families with special needs children as well as promoting autism awareness. Many of the events the group holds serve as a respite opportunity for other family members while her student volunteers keep their special kids occupied with engaging activities.


Ms Jones is closing out Autism Awareness Month screening one of the most popular mainstream films about autism, spotlighting Temple Grandin. Ms Grandin is a successful individual on the spectrum and acclaimed professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who is an expert on animal behavior, and an autism spokesperson.


That free event will conclude with a panel discussion featuring National Honors Society students Dylan Lew, Emily Neave, Kevin Arthur, Lauren Granville, and Maddie Findley who attended the 2017 "Current Trends in Autism" conference in Burlington, Mass., in March - and their experience meeting Ms Grandin and hearing her keynote speech.


Special Needs Advocate Karen Simon, parent and educator Dawn Ford, and Newtown Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, are also expected to participate and engage the audience in a question and answer session.


The event will take place Sunday, April 30, from 2 to 4 pm, at Newtown Middle School Auditorium, 11 Queen Street. There is no admission - free will donations will be gratefully accepted to help underwrite future FUN programming, including an upcoming celebration of Honor Society seniors who will be heading off to college next fall.


Snacks, water, autism awareness pins, and other cause-related accessories will be available for sale before and after the screening. Teachers, parents, caregivers, and all members of the community are invited.


This FUN Autism Month event is being underwritten by a grant from Newtown Savings Bank, and is co-sponsored by the NHS National Honor Society Chapter and NYFS.


Expanding NYFS Programs


While FUN tends to be heavily concentrated in Newtown, NYFS and its expanding programming for individuals on the spectrum is going regional. The decision was made to expand after a key autism services agency closed in Ridgefield.


At the same time, NYFS staff have determined there is an equal lack of services for these individuals and families in the New Milford and lower Litchfield County areas.


Erica Salas, NYFS program director, and the agency's operations and development representative Matt Ariniello recently updated The Newtown Bee on successful autism support programs already in progress, along with a new activity that will launch this fall.


The agency currently hosts a weekly social networking group that meets Thursdays from 5:30 to 7 pm, and has served more than four dozen participants since it launched in 2016. This group welcomes youths on the spectrum ages 9 to 13, for ongoing six-week sessions that mix recreational and other entertaining activities to help foster healthy social development.


"We've had everything from yoga lessons and Lego therapy to juggling," Ms Salas said. "But since we've determined there is a lack of services for these young people in the New Milford, Kent, and Washington areas, we'll be expanding this program to New Milford on Thursday nights in the fall."


The second group, for individuals age 18 to 35, puts each attendee to work in turn deciding on the type of activity the group will encounter each week. This program has brought participants together for bowling, movie dates, and trips to eat at area restaurants.


About 15 participants have taken advantage of this offering from NYFS since this group launched last summer, Mr Ariniello said.


A third program at the agency, dubbed "Teen Talk," is for youths age 13 to 17, and is held Fridays at 4 pm. This group will work with a licensed therapist to help attendees understand and develop better emotional reactions and behavior in social situations.


Three six-week sessions for about ten youths each have been completed since the spring of 2016. Attendance in each other group is capped at about a dozen participants, Ms Salas said.


"The Thursday group is designed to get kids off the couch and engaging them in developing social skills, building relationships, and even sportsmanship," Mr Ariniello said. "And we're thrilled that at least a couple of participants have developed friendships that now extend beyond our meetings."


"We try to get the younger kids off the couch too," Ms Salas added. "So we try and give them alternate recreational and therapeutic activities like yoga, sand art classes, and we held a 'Mad Scientist' night where they created their own experiments."


To learn more about autism services and other support provided through NYFS, visit newtownyouthandfamilyservices.org.


The final event of the school year for the FUN group is its Senior Send Off - a free public celebratory picnic for departing NHS senior Honor Society students set for Sunday, May 28, from 4 to 6 pm, in the Dickinson Park pavilion - rain or shine.


For more information about FUN, or to learn how to volunteer, sponsor activities, or involve a child or young adult on the spectrum, visit the group's Facebook page or familiesunitedinnewtown.org.


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