An old adage states there is “strength in numbers.” If that’s the case, then Lewis County Autism Coalition is a positive force to be reckoned with regarding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) acceptance and support for Lewis County residents.Morton Hospital

Mission of Lewis County Autism Coalition

Formed in 2012 and certified as a 501(c)(3) in 2015, the Coalition’s mission is to “serve Lewis County families that are affected by autism — individuals, families, and caretakers — and create an equitable, accessible Lewis County.” Seeing a dire need for holistic healthcare and access to resources across the lifespan, the Coalition works alongside community agencies such as Northwest Pediatrics, Morningside Services, Summit Center, and Reliable Enterprises (among many others) to provide support and acceptance for those living on the autism spectrum.

For operations director Nicole Miller, fulfilling this mission means not only promoting awareness of autism but full acceptance and inclusion for people with ASD.

Lewis County Autism Coalition
Members of the Lewis County Autism Coalition board enjoying their time together. Left to right: Alison Jenkins, Michelle Whitlow, Lisa Davis, and Megan Shepard. Photo credit: Nicole Miller

“There are a lot of people in this community that have autism or some other type of neurodivergence diagnosis,” says Miller. “One in 44 people have autism. Places like us exist out of that need. It never goes away but only grows.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Spectrum Disorder can be, at its most basic definition, described as “a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave.” A vast spectrum, the symptoms of autism vary for each person, such as their verbal or social skills,

“If you’ve ever met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” says Miller. “People’s support needs change from day to day or as they grow up. Somebody may do really well in primary school or need additional support in high school or adulthood or vice versa.”

Fortunately, the Coalition has formed several programs to provide resources across the lifespan.

Supports for Students Living with Autism

Lewis County Autism Coalition
Coalition Member Hannah poses next to a Twin Transit bus she is featured on as part of the 2021 Inclusive Hiring Campaign. Photo credit: Brittany Voie

The School Medical Autism Review Team, or SMART Program, aims to provide an early, quick, and thorough diagnosis for children with autism in order to provide immediate support. The Coalition, in partnership with Northwest Pediatrics, as well as teachers and parents, works to get an autism assessment done locally instead of seeking services in large cities, where help could take several months to a few years. Within three to six months, the SMART program can provide a diagnosis and interventions for young students to start them out with the proper support.

“We will do anything to shorten that time and get kids into the support programs they need,” said Miller, “Even if it takes a few months.”

Neurodiverse Connections in Lewis County

However, while early intervention is essential, support is still needed for adults with autism, whether they received their early diagnosis or are just learning about a new diagnosis.

“I think, a lot of times, when we think of someone with autism, we think of children.,” says Miller. “It’s always a good reminder to remember that those people grow up and need housing, employment, and a level of independence. This isn’t a childhood diagnosis. This is something that is lifelong and a part of you.

With separate groups for adults and teens, the Neurodiverse Connections group provides support not only for those with ASD but any other type of intellectual or developmental disability.

Neurodivergence, according to Miller, is an “umbrella term” for anyone with a cognitive variation from the norm and includes, but is not limited to, autism, dyslexia, epilepsy, Tourette’s, and OCD.

“It’s distinct in that it’s not a psychiatric disorder,” says Miller.” It’s not mental health. The brain is just wired differently.”

Through free monthly social gatherings, members find a comfortable setting to socialize and build community, all while building their confidence in the process.

Cultivating Inclusion for All Lewis County Residents

Lewis County Autism Coalition
The Lewis County Autism Coalition hosts Sensory Summer Camp annually to serve children with sensory needs. Featured here are Summer Camp teacher Sharlene Hoffman and Mad Hatter Play Café owner Lisa Stills. Photo credit: Brittany Voie

With the community’s support, adults with ASD can find connections via the Cultivating Inclusion program. Born out of a need to get more community involvement with businesses and to approach the community as a whole, the program’s heart is for autism acceptance.

Working out of schools, workplaces, and within the community, Cultivating Inclusion aims not only to prepare adults with ASD and other disabilities for the workplace but to teach and empower employers to include these individuals in the workplace. In participating schools, students will learn about networking and professional development, as well as training and education for their parents as they make the transition.

“Seeing a parent feeling like they have resources is huge,” said Miller. “Seeing that relief in their face when they realize they’re not alone is fantastic.”

Potential employers are trained in inclusion principles and practices. Community members and agencies can also participate by promoting the campaign by giving presentations at clubs, faith organizations, and childcare centers.

“The best thing we can do as a community is ask questions and educate ourselves and be open to learning from other people’s experiences,” said Miller.

The Future of Lewis County Autism Coalition

Lewis County Autism Coalition
Board members Lisa Davis, Josie L., and Morgan Hunter speak at a Q&A panel on inclusive hiring at the 2022 Economic Alliance Luncheon. Photo credit: Brittany Voie

Although social programs, and the world as a whole, have shifted in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Miller is nothing but optimistic about the future of the Coalition and the way society is adapting to new work environments. Although the hybrid, work-from-home model is not ideal or feasible for everyone, the Coalition has seen the virtual model benefit clients and has seen success by implementing that into a client’s routine. Moving forward, it will be used as an accommodation and consideration for clients from the very beginning instead of an afterthought or last resort.

“I would love to see people putting these considerations into place as their primary program rather than considering it and creating a separate program as an afterthought,” said Miller. “If you’re planning a party, and you do all the planning and set up, and then ask, ‘What do we do if someone is in a wheelchair?’ Just plan it from the beginning! Make it part of the process from the get-go.”

While the Lewis County Autism Coalition is a tapestry of many organizations working together, the board members are the tight threads weaving everyone together, working out of different corners of the community.

“We are small but work tirelessly,” said Miller.

Ideally, Miller would love to see even more services added, a centralized location for all these services and offices, and ultimately, a community center for people to meet, receive support, and make connections.

Although advocacy and education are imperative for businesses, educators, caretakers, and parents, the real priority is the clients they serve. Over the year and a half that Miller has served as operations manager, her greatest rewards are seeing the changes in the individuals she has worked with. Whether it’s witnessing their professional skills develop or watching a once-shy individual open up at social events, there is no greater reward than watching that growth occur.

“It’s been amazing to see that self-esteem boost just by being in the community,” said Miller.

And the work is just getting started. If you’re a parent seeking resources or activities for your child, a business looking to celebrate inclusion, a community member looking for ways to serve, or someone on the ASD spectrum looking for support, then check out The Lewis County Autism Coalition’s Facebook page. Annual events include conferences, career fairs, summer camps, and lots more.

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