This time of year is filled with many great expectations and well-intended plans of beautiful celebrations and perfectly assembled pictures of our family and loved ones. In fact, by this time many of us have ordered our family holiday cards and are awaiting their pristine arrival. However, this seemingly simple “Hallmark” tradition that so many of us take for granted, can be an incredible source of stress and frustration for some families who have a child with autism. The act of taking your child or children somewhere strange where there will inevitably be waiting, encounter unfamiliar and loud noises, potentially uncomfortable smells and impatient photographers can be a major barrier for some families who want to engage in this holiday tradition.
Enter a group of hardworking and committed graduate students from Towson University’s Teacher as Leader in ASD ME.d. program, who recognized these potential limitations for families and individuals with autism and wholeheartedly decided to lift these barriers and create an opportunity to experience a day of love, acceptance and celebration of their beautiful families. Cultivating their collective passion (led by their fellow graduate student, Debbie Page, president of the Autism Society Baltimore Chesapeake, our community partner, who sponsored these efforts), these students took the nuts and bolts of an assignment from their Families as Partners graduate class and created a magically inclusive and love-filled free family photo shoot experience for families from the autism society. This amazing group of students and teachers thought of every potential consideration needed to make this a positive and successful experience for our families including a “quiet room” where individuals could move away from the stimulation and noise, an activity room where they guided individuals to engage in sensory-based activities or scaffolded arts and crafts. They created visuals that children could use to choose to visit our amazingly accommodating and creative balloon artist while undergraduate student volunteers served as “family escorts”, warmly greeting families upon arrival and ensuring their needs were being met as they waited for their generously scheduled portrait time. They created three different photo options: outside, a photo with Santa and several different inside backdrop options for the families to choose from or use all three. The event was scheduled from 10-2, but these passionate graduate students set up at the lovely TU Childcare center on Friday night and arrived early Sunday morning to ensure the space was warm, welcoming and accommodating. In fact, one family arrived well beyond their scheduled appointment time and after the photographers had already packed up their equipment, yet without hesitation one photographer graciously unpacked and set everything back up to ensure they were able to take their family picture. These students’ passion for families and individuals with autism and their desire to go above and beyond and make one common family experience a little easier and for some, even attainable for the very first time is a true example of being present, meeting these families exactly where they are and providing what they need in that moment. In essence, being their passionate partner.
This day would not have been possible without the incredibly generous donation of time, energy and resources of our amazing photographers: Ran Zaimer, Sandy Nichols, Debbie Payne, Andrea Monroe, Alanna Shea and Kimberly Coffey. These photographers devoted their entire Sunday to take pictures of the families and then spent time afterwards editing the photos so the families would have a beautiful treasure and reminder of this time in their lives. During the event, the photographers did everything in their power to not only accommodate our families, but also spread love and joy throughout the day. One photographer took individual pictures of each mother, capturing the most authentic and beautiful expressions of love beaming from all of their faces.
What an amazing gift. This act of generosity lends one to question, how does this happen? How do people simply respond so graciously and give of themselves and their services?
A few years ago, the amazing Dr. Ann Turnbull, from the University of Kansas gave an inspiring keynote at our annual Honestly Autism Day conference. In her keynote, she told the story of extending herself beyond her common network of supports and services to access needed transportation for her adult son with autism and told about going to meet with the owner of a local cab company in Lawrence, Kansas. She asked the owner if she would possibly work with her to create a consistent cab service to get her son from his apartment to his job every day. In the early 90s, independent employment and living opportunities for adults with disabilities was very rare and the necessary supports and services had to be carefully patched together by parents in many cases. Ann described how this was very much an outside of the box request for her and she openly shared with the owner of the cab company all of the fear and worry she had about putting her adult son who was nonverbal in the car of a stranger. And when she was finished sharing her plight, the owner of the cab company reached into her desk and pulled out a green card and a red card and she said to Ann,
“Today I am going to give you my green card of friendship and I am going to give you my green card of helpfulness and my green card of support and I am going to take your red cards of fear and worry and we are going to work this out together.”
All those years ago, Dr. Ann Turnbull showed us what is looks like to invite support, create connections and envision great expectations for individuals with disabilities and their families to live full lives of inclusion and acceptance within their communities. We have lived those lessons here through the beautiful connections of all of the people who gave their green cards and embraced our families to make this such a special day. We also know for every green card that was exchanged on this Sunday in November that a ripple of understanding, acceptance and generosity was created that we hope will continue to spread throughout our community.
For more inspiring stories of individuals living full lives on the autism spectrum and strategies for the families, professionals and community members who support them, please join us at our annual Honestly Autism Day Conference on April 6th, 2019.