By Karen Krejcha
Envision living in an inclusive society where youth and adults on the autism spectrum are accepted, valued and respected as friends, family and contributing members of society.
Imagine living in a world where all people are appreciated for their strengths and gifts despite differences in abilities, ideology, neurology, religion, cultural upbringing or socioeconomic status.
Autism Serves is a volunteerism movement providing world change, one person at a time. Launched in March in the southwest Washington and Portland metro areas, Autism Serves embraces each person’s unique combination of skills, gifts and talents. The vision is to utilize the person’s individuality to support positive societal change for people with autism, and of all abilities.
Autism Serves is a program of Autism Empowerment, a local nonprofit that develops and offers inclusive community programs, support services and innovative leadership opportunities for those on the autism spectrum and their families.
What sets Autism Empowerment apart from most autism-related organizations is that everyone on the Board of Directors or Advisory Staff is either on the autism spectrum or closely related to someone who is.
Whether volunteers self-identify as Autistic, Aspie, on the autism spectrum or as an autism spectrum supporter, Autism Empowerment values and respects neurodiversity, inclusion and individualism. The organization encourages a proactive, positive attitude of self-advocacy—for all ages and ability levels.
“I chose to volunteer with Autism Empowerment because I believe in their mission of enriching the lives of people on the autism spectrum,” says Board Member, Brian Tashima. “A few years ago, my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s and I welcomed the opportunity to help make a difference for people in the autism community.”
Children and adults each have special strengths, talents and gifts. Some of these talents we may know about, and some are yet to be discovered.
Eight-year-old Ryan loves volunteering because, “It’s fun. I like helping and getting to try out new things. My brother, Mommy and Daddy help, too.”
Since each one of us has the potential to improve the world, it is important that each one of us, despite the physical, developmental or emotional challenges we may face, be given the opportunity and accommodations necessary to positively contribute to society.
Many nonprofit organizations would like to include youth and adults on the autism spectrum within their volunteer programs but lack training and resources to effectively do so. Common challenges that may prevent someone from volunteering include sensory issues, anxiety, difficulty communicating and fear of rejection or embarrassment.
Autism Empowerment hopes to minimize these challenges by offering training to volunteers and nonprofits from a self-advocacy perspective. The organization collaborates with forward-thinking organizations in the nonprofit and for-profit sector that understand the value of volunteerism and all the benefits it can bring to improve health and well-being, as well as promote systemic change.
Features and benefits of the Autism Serves program include learning and practicing life skills, social skills, job skills and having opportunities for meaningful bonding, friendship and inclusion within the local community.
Monthly service projects are driven by the interests, skills and passions of those within the autism community and seek to connect volunteers with a wide range of age-appropriate opportunities.
“Everyone benefits when they volunteer,” says Julie Borghello. “I volunteer with Autism Empowerment because I have a son on the spectrum and they are a local organization doing great things in our community.”
Borghello shares that her family benefits from seeing her son and his friends have fun and not have to worry about acceptance from others.
Annie Lamberto, special education teacher at Prairie High School, adds, “No matter our abilities, every person finds value in their purpose. Volunteering provides a purpose and connection to others.”
Volunteers are afforded opportunities for rewards and recognition based on volunteer hours in multiple categories. If someone already volunteers in the community through school, work, church or another venue, they have an option for their volunteer hours to rollover into the Autism Serves program.
Youth and adults on the autism spectrum have a wide range of challenges that they face throughout their lives. Because the autism spectrum is so vast and the severity of symptoms varies from individual to individual, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment or support service.
It is often challenging for individuals and families to access the medical, educational, social and vocational support services that they require or desire. It can also be quite difficult to access services in a timely fashion that is not cost-prohibitive or so time-intensive that treatment ends up taking away from quality of life rather than contributing to it.
Public perception of individuals on the autism spectrum is often mixed because the messages of gloom and exclusion often compete with messages of hope, inclusion and autism acceptance. It is not a surprise that individuals and families impacted by autism often report feeling isolated, alone, anxious, depressed and not meaningfully connected within society. It can be hard to self-advocate when one believes his or her voice will not be heard or respected.
Autism Serves aims to build bridges and positively transform public perception by providing fun, meaningful and interesting opportunities for youth and adults with autism to volunteer alongside others by engaging with Autism Empowerment and other non-profits.
“What I like best about volunteering with Autism Serves is the idea that EVERYONE has something to offer,” says Patty Sprenkel, special education teacher at Amboy Middle School. “Volunteering not only allows us to help others, but to be helped ourselves. Being able to contribute to our community makes us an integral part of it—instilling a sense of pride, fulfillment, self-worth and validation.”
At the Autism Serves launch event, the 3rd Annual Easter Egg Hunt for Acceptance of All Abilities, more than 1,300 attendees came out for egg hunting, entertainment and a cross-disability resource fair connecting families to more than 40 agencies and organizations from throughout the southwest Washington and Portland metro areas. Over 180 Autism Serves volunteers took part in making this special event happen.
“My twin boys have participated in the egg hunt for several years and I’ve seen it grow into a huge successful event,” says Jodie Kotrlik. “As a volunteer this year, I had an opportunity to be on the other side. Seeing all those eager volunteers come out to help was mind-blowing. And the hundreds of smiling faces before, during and after the event was priceless. It was an honor to be a part of it.”
Of the 180 volunteers, there were opportunities for students, adults and seniors of all abilities to participate. Those that are not on the spectrum, but who would like to support Autism Empowerment, are encouraged to apply as well.
“Autism Empowerment does so much to help the autism community through its various programs, services and activities,” Tashima adds. “I think any and every contribution that a volunteer can make—from donating funds to cleaning up at the annual Easter Egg Hunt—helps to make a difference in the lives of people on the spectrum, as well as their families.”
To become involved, visit their website.
Karen Krejcha is Executive Director of Autism Empowerment, host of Autism Empowerment Radio, member of the Spectrums Magazine editorial advisory board and a published author. She was diagnosed on the autism spectrum after her two sons (now 8 and 14) were diagnosed in 2008.