As mothers, they know all too well the trials and difficulties that come with rearing a child with autism. They have wiped the tears from their children’s faces after a tough day at school – a day filled with taunts from and bullying by fellow students. They have faced educators who didn’t know how to teach their children. They have also comforted their children while trying to explain the unexplainable – why others would want to hurt them.
They also know those difficulties do not end when their children finish high school. In fact, bigger hurdles await them and their children as the transition to adulthood begins. But, they are not content to sit idly by. No, they want to make a difference, to bring about change – and they want to begin that process now.
That is why Alverna Keeven and Sonya Sparks, mothers of young adult sons with autism, have joined together to form the Families with Adult Autism Support Group.
They held their first meeting in January. Five families attended. Including the families’ adult children, the group had a total of 14 in attendance. The two mothers hope to expand that number in coming months. It’s not because they want a large group, but rather they want to help other families experiencing what they have. They want to learn from other families, too.
“This will be a learning experience for all of us,” Sparks said as she discussed the thought process behind the support group. “Through this, parents will learn that they are not alone. As a group, we can help each other. We each have something that we can contribute. It’s a combination of people helping to fix one problem at a time.
“Each child with autism is different. We can learn from each others’ experiences. All voices are welcome in this support group. We encourage them to bring their young adults with them to the meeting. It’s our young adults that have gotten us where we are.”
Keeven noted there are support groups to assist parents with young children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“We were with another support group,” Keeven said. “It was for younger children. What we’re trying to do is bring more awareness of the disabilities (faced by young adults with autism) and then go on to the transition into adulthood. We’re trying to get our kids prepared to find a job and how to handle the job once they get it.”
Both mothers agree that acceptance has not been easy. A large percentage of the population still does not understand what autism is and the difficulties it presents for those who suffer from it. As its name implies, autism spectrum disorder covers a wide range of symptoms and the varying degrees of difficulty those with autism face in adapting to the demands of society.
“We simply want them to be accepted,” said Sparks, whose son Zach (20) belongs to a social group for young adults (17 years to college age) with autism. “In his social group they have a therapist that conducts the meetings. He puts them in a particular social setting. They do role play.
“In addition to that, they will go to Barnes and Noble and to Wiregrass Commons Mall. They are told a week ahead of time that they are going. These visits help them get used to crowds and distractions. We’re hoping we can draw from this group to join us for our support group.
“Through the support group, we want to learn more as parents and to be able to teach our children at the same time.
“Zach is not the only one (young adult with autism seeking employment). He just needs a chance.”
Through her journey with her son, Sparks has already faced many hurdles. She has also picked up a lot of useful information. It is that information that she wants to share with other families facing similar circumstances.
“I didn’t know, until recently, that you need to establish guardianship over your child by age 19,” Sparks said. “You are extending your parental rights to take care of them.
“It’s information like this that we want to share with others. We want to have speakers come to the support group to share their knowledge with the families that attend. In addition, we would like to involve law enforcement with our group. There is a lot they need to know in how deal with an adult with autism.”
“Our basic goal is to bring awareness, from an earlier age, for them to be accepted,” Keeven added. “It starts when they are young. I exposed my son to a lot of things growing up. He loves to travel, to stay in hotels. As parents, we have gotten stronger. They have made us stronger.”
The desire to help others does not stop with the support group. Keeven says there is another important goal for the group.
“One of our goals is to have a place for our kids to gather,” she said. “We want it to be a place where they can socialize, play games and just be there together. We want our young adults to be able to talk and share with other young adults.”
The next meeting of the Families with Adult Autism Support Group is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 20, at 6 p.m. The meeting will be in the private dining room at Hot’s Deli, 180 Westgate Parkway.
For more information about the support group and autism, contact Alverna Keeven, 334-790-1524.