Learning to Live with Autism – The Autism Support Group

By Sandra Zunino

Confusion, despair, helplessness: these are just a few of the emotions that parents experience when their child has been diagnosed with autism.

A much-misunderstood disorder, autism is now considered the fastest-growing developmental disability. The Autism Support Group offers hope for coping with the challenges of this condition.

The group formed about seven years ago in Centreville under the direction of the Developmental Disabilities Administration, but almost disintegrated when upon losing their meeting location. Diane Lane, Family Navigator, Maryland Coalition of Families for Children’s Mental Health; however, recognized its necessity and restarted the group last year.

Diane, whose son has autism, remembers the feeling of hopelessness that came with that diagnosis. “So many parents feel lost and confused and don’t know where to turn,” she says, “I’m able to give them a little hope that it may get better – It got better for me.”

As many children are diagnosed from 1 to 3 years of age, parents are often young and have other young children. Diane points out that there are immense challenges for these families. While autism awareness is increasing, it is still socially mysterious and there are many stereotypes associated with the condition. Simple outings in public can be difficult. Siblings may suffer as well.

The initial reaction for many parents is to do lots of research, but that can be overwhelming, says Diane. “It’s exhausting dealing with a child with any disability.”

Through her job with the coalition, Diane is an advocate for families in QAC with special needs children, providing resources and support mechanisms as well as linking them with other community agencies that can help. “The support group is a small portion of my job, but I do put a lot of time into it because I know how important it is for so many families,” she says.

Support Group co-facilitator Jennifer Doege helps by assisting with group meetings, suggesting meeting discussions and contacting subject speakers. Jennifer is the parent coordinator with Partners for Success and has a child with autism as well.

Recognizing the need for childcare support for families who attend the meetings, Diane procured a mini grant through Queen Anne’s County Community Partnerships for Children and Families. These funds enabled parents to leave their children with a specialized childcare provider in a large playroom adjacent to the meeting room. Once this service began, family attendance immediately increased.

“It is difficult to find childcare for a child with autism because not everyone is acquainted with the specific needs of these children,” explains Diane. “Families feel more comfortable bringing their children and utilizing this resource.”

Not only do parents gain the advantages of listening to experts in the field of autism, they are able to share their own experiences and make valuable social connections. Many families report that just having a social network with people who understand what they are going through is helpful, says Diane. “Eventually my goal is to empower them so they can use the resources already available in the community.”

In addition to the Autism Support Group, Diane facilitates “Helping Hands” a group for families with a child of any kind of developmental disability including Down’s syndrome, autism, ADHD and other challenging behaviors. Because autism is still so unique, she says it’s best to have a separate group. Many families attend both.

The discussion for the next meeting will be on IEP Accommodations and MSA/HSA Testing. The Autism Support Group meets from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., the third Monday of the month at The Judy Center, 5441 Main Street in Grasonville. Call 443-480-2966 for more information.