Updated: May 30, 2019
WRITTEN BY SARAH McCULLEN | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
This month, blue-themed fundraisers benefit the autism center of North Mississippi, which has expanded its services to treat more children.
April is World Autism Month, and statewide, events and fundraisers are being held as part of #GoBlueMS, a concept developed in Tupelo three years ago to bring awareness and acceptance for children with autism across the state.
“Autism Speaks has a campaign called ‘Light It Up Blue,’ where famous buildings around the world go blue to generate awareness [about autism],” said Brittany Cuevas, executive director of the Autism Center of North Mississippi. “We came up with #GoBlueMS to grow statewide awareness, and it just grows every year.”
Locally on World Autism Day, Tupelo’s City Hall, the Lee County Library and others show support by lighting up blue, while Tupelo Parks and Recreation hosts a burger bash benefit at Fairpark. Other individuals and businesses sponsor other fundraising events including the “Blue for Boo” walk, run or motorcycle ride April 13 in Holly Springs and the ACNM Annual 5K April 27 at Ballard Park in Tupelo.
“When I came up with the hashtag, I didn’t want it to be just in Tupelo because I realized that really no one in Mississippi was pushing this ‘go blue during the month of April for autism awareness,’” Cuevas said. “We also sell T-shirts and encourage businesses to post selfies in support, and the first time we did it, we sold them all over the state. The secretary of state’s office employees bought T-shirts and put a selfie on Facebook.”
ACNM held a T-shirt design contest on Facebook in February, and this year’s winning designer is 12-year-old John Herring of Pontotoc County, who receives treatment at the center. Proceeds from the sale of the T-shirts benefit the Autism Center and can be ordered online at autismcenterms.com.
“We just want affected families to know they’re not alone,” Cuevas said. “I think a lot of times, when families are living with [autism], they end up isolating themselves because they’re afraid of what might happen when they go into a restaurant. My hope is that these families feel like we can come alongside them and support them, and through the Autism Center, offer more services in any way we can.”
Autism affects one in 59 children according to the CDC. Since 2009, ACNM has provided treatment for children ages 2-8 with autism spectrum disorders. In the past year, the facility has undergone renovation and added a new clinical director, allowing the center to expand its services.
Dr. Sheila Williamson, a licensed behavior analyst and clinical psychologist, is heading up a new program that allows ACNM to serve a wider age range across the spectrum. For the last 10 years, ACNM offered limited treatment.
“Because of Sheila’s experience and level of expertise she has really created a new vision for [the Autism Center],” Cuevas said. “She can see the full potential and she can see where we can take this place. She’s the captain of advancing the program.”
Having trained at Rutgers University, the University of Mississippi and Johns Hopkins University, Williamson has over 30 years of experience in treating individuals with autism spectrum disorders. She has treated individuals with autism ages 0-72 in schools, private practice and now, at ACNM.
“I’m so excited to get to train others and facilitate growth here,” Williamson said. “Previously we were treating young kids with language issues, but now we’re going to get to serve [children and young adults up to age 21] throughout the entire autism spectrum so that those kids can meet their full potential, learning the skills and having the support they need to do that.”
The facility expansion includes a 3,000-square-foot space for a new treatment program known as BLAST, an acronym for Building Life and Social Skills Training.
Previously the center had no group therapy and very little social skills training. The BLAST program offers therapy in a communal setting, teaching participants to focus on particular skills in an environment where distraction is common. The addition of the BLAST program in the new space will allow more children to receive treatment.
“The groups will be based on what level on the autism spectrum they fall, and the programming will be adapted to the level,” Williamson said. “We want to look at the whole person, so we’ll be teaching exercise, self-care, self-advocacy, safety awareness, social skills, leisure and more.”
The center is also working to develop programming for children with more severe behavioral problems, and it is expanding its school-based services as well as parent support, education and training.
“Before [Williamson arrived] we had a cookie-cutter type of treatment, but what we’re expanding is the ability to tailor treatment to the specific needs of those who come to us,” Cuevas said.
ACNM has a grant-funded scholarship account that allows families without the ability to pay to receive services, but the center still relies on grants, donations and fundraisers to supplement the cost of their treatment programs.
To show your support for autism awareness, consider buying a T-shirt or attending a fundraising event, and post photos on social media using the hashtag #GoBlueMS. Learn more about the Autism Center of North Mississippi and this month’s events at autismcenternms.com.
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