On May 6, 2014, families, professionals, and educators gathered together at the inaugural “Parent to Parent Town Hall Meeting” sponsored by Autism Speaks and held at Wood Oaks Jr. High School in Northbrook, Illinois.
Laurie Chern, Vice Chair for the Chicago Chapter Board of Directors recognized the need for parental support while navigating the world of autism. Reflecting on her own experience, Laurie commented, “After my own son, Dylan, was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism/Asperger’s at age 7, I wanted to connect with other parents because this was unknown territory for me. I desperately wanted to know what to expect.” She added, “I felt that by connecting with other parents I could discover what I needed to know in order to find out about the best resources.”
In the five years since Dylan’s diagnosis, Laurie recognized the profound need for parents with children on the spectrum to connect with one another. “I thought about the best way to pull a large group of parents together to address common concerns while introducing them to Autism Speaks’ tools and resources while providing tips and strategies from service providers in the community.” She approached the Chicago Chapter of Autism Speaks and with their support, created a town hall forum to present critical information to parents.
“We were very excited with Laurie Chern first approached us about her idea for a Parent to Parent Town Hall. So many families, even with older children on the spectrum, don’t always know where to go to connect with resources that can help them,” said Kerry Schaalack, Executive Director of the Autism Speaks Chicagoland Chapter. “This meeting gave us a wonderful opportunity to share with families many of the free resources that are available to them on autismspeaks.org, through our Family Services team located in Chicago and through our collaborative partners and service providers that participated in the meeting”.
The evening brought together parents, grandparents, and educators. Service providers within the community offered information on a myriad of resources, ranging from Autism Speaks Took Kits to in home assistance and different therapies. The panelists included experts from both the city and suburbs and focused on current trends and best practices for children on the spectrum. They included:
- Jodi Miller – Autism Speaks Autism Response Team Coordinator for the Midwest
- Colleen Shinn - Training Specialist/ Manager of The Autism Program (TAP) Service Center at Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago
- Julie Kahn – Speech-Language Pathologist, Caryn Sachs Burstein and Associates
- Wendy Rosen – Parent of a 16 year-old child with Autism
- Chris Meglan – Chicago Public Schools Special Education teacher at Beard Elementary
Each of the five panelists offered a unique perspective, providing tips and strategies that addressed common concerns and questions. Topics ranged from utilizing visual support, IEP expectations, supporting social interaction, and appropriate recreational and summer camp activities. Even with the many topics covered, panelists agreed the focus should always remain on what the child can do versus what they cannot. Panelist and educator Chris Meglan commented, “focusing on the student’s strengths leads to respect and acceptance.”
Every participant received a packet of information on Autism Speaks’ resources along with a copy of The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone with Autism by Ellen Sabin. These free resources proved to be very informative for both parents and professionals. One parent of a child with autism shared, “I thought I knew all there was to know about autism, but I ended up learning so much tonight!” Both parents and professionals made critical connections networking within their local community.
The evening was met with tremendous success and the program allowed for outstanding discussion among the panelists. Autism Speaks continues to serve as the benchmark for developing community partnerships and offering support for families impacted by autism. At the end of the program, Laurie observed, “this might just be the key to moving forward - helping parents connect, support, and learn from one another.”