The Autism Awareness Support Center of Southwest Michigan is working to educate on and advocate for families and individuals whose lives are affected by autism.
As a seasoned mother of two, Katrina Wood was no stranger to bringing up little ones when her third child was born, but when he was diagnosed with autism as an infant, she knew she had more to learn. “At the time, I knew nothing about autism,” recalls Wood. “But one of my friends from church started a local autism support group and invited me to join.” She started attending what would soon become known as the Autism Awareness Support Center of Southwest Michigan (ASC) regularly, and the group quickly became a way for her and other parents to meet, share their stories, and lend a helping hand when needed.
Though at its inception, the group served only parents, over the years, it has evolved and expanded to meet the needs of parents, children, siblings, and even employers. The once-tiny group renamed itself the Autism Awareness Support Center of Southwest Michigan (ASC) and has been an indispensable community resource for over a decade. “We provide one-on-one support for everyone affected by autism,” says Wood. “Parents can get overwhelmed and not know where to turn. We connect them with resources they may not know exist. We’re also doing so much more in the community. Our goal is to make everyone feel included.”
ASC’s community programs include educating businesses about autism so they can better support employees and customers, as well as hosting family fun events throughout the year. One favorite event is movie night—earlier this year, families popped some popcorn, drizzled on the butter, and laughed along to a private screening of “Kung Fu Panda.”
Another splashing success year-after-year has been ASC’s pool days at KIK Pool on Walters street. Nothing hits the spot during the dog days of summer like a cannonball, especially when the entire pool is reserved on every summer Saturday from Labor Day to Memorial Day. Newcomers are welcomed with open arms at all of ASC’s events, and everything is free for families affected by autism.
Thinking of the positive impact she has seen these celebrations have on families across Southwest Michigan, Wood explains, “Sometimes, parents are afraid of judgement in public places. The social stigma is still pretty common. Events like these allow kids with autism to be themselves in a safe space.” Simply knowing that they have a caring community behind them is a game-changer for parents and kids alike. “People with autism want to belong,” Wood continues. “They may find it difficult to integrate and interact, but they want connections and friendships, just like everyone else. My son is 20 now, and this community means the world to him.” By providing an atmosphere of both fun and acceptance, everyone gets to know each other a little bit better each time, and strong friendships form across families, deepening community ties in a world were autism is often misunderstood.