As is often said, kids don’t come with an instruction manual. But for parents of kids with autism and developmental disabilities, Easter Seals Midwest provides a team of therapists and volunteers ready to help. “Before coming to Easter Seals’ two-week parent-training program, my husband and I had become somewhat reclusive because it could be hard to go out with our son Ethan,” says a local mom. “When it was time to leave the playground, there would be a fight, and we would threaten to take things away, which we realize now only made things worse.”

During Easter Seals Midwest’s program, the parents learned tools and techniques that helped them effectively communicate with their child, and the turnaround was immediate. “Just sitting at the dinner table is so much easier. He knows what we expect of him,” the mom says. “It feels like we have unlocked a huge part of our son’s personality. We haven’t been this happy in so long! We owe so much to everyone in the program, and we have taken all that we have learned to heart. I love the way we parent now.”

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Easter Seals Midwest (formerly LifeSkills, which merged with Touch Point Autism in 2012) serves both kids and adults with developmental disabilities, including autism, with the goal of helping them live, learn, work and participate in the community, says CEO Wendy Sullivan.

“One of the important messages we have about autism is that sooner is better when it comes to diagnosis and therapy, but it’s never too late,” Sullivan says. The nonprofit’s Sooner Equals Better initiative seeks to diagnose children early so that they can receive early intervention services. “Half of the children who get intensive early intervention by age 3 will go on to kindergarten in a regular classroom and there won’t be any noticeable signs of autism,” she says. “And all of the kids will make significant gains. Unfortunately, the average age of diagnosis is about 4, which is way too late; and studies show that for African-American children, it’s several years later.”

Once kids are diagnosed, Easter Seals Midwest provides support to help kids in school, provide respite for caregivers, and plan for the future after high school. “We help people find and keep competitive jobs,” Sullivan says. “There’s nothing like the dignity that comes with having a job. It’s an innate thing in human beings: You want to feel like you’re making a contribution.” For example, she recalls a client who works for the nonprofit as a data entry clerk. “When he came, he was totally quiet; he would eat lunch by himself and didn’t give anybody eye contact. After two years, he came to the staff holiday party and he was dancing the electric slide. Now, he comes by my office and gives me the latest Blues and Cardinals scores. He’s just totally blossomed, and I think what caused that was his self-esteem because of his job.”

Sullivan encourages parents to contact Easter Seals Midwest if they have any inkling that their child might fall on the autism spectrum. “There is a whole lifetime of hope for people with autism; and as difficult as it is for families, the future is so much brighter than they believe.”

Volunteer Spotlight: Judy Kent

Judy Kent first became involved with Easter Seals Midwest’s predecessor organizations when she was invited to the annual Festival of Trees fundraiser. She was intrigued by the great work being done by the small nonprofit; and some 10 years ago, she decided to become more deeply involved. At the time, she didn’t personally know anyone with autism or other developmental disabilities, but the opportunity to make an impact excited her. “I was looking for an organization that was small, yet had lots of potential for growth; and they were ready to spread their wings and grow,” Kent says. “I could see they had so much potential—there was a lot they were doing, but there was so much more they could do. They just needed to grow their support system, and I wanted to be part of that.”

Kent currently is a board member, serves on the executive committee, and chairs the development committee, as well as the Festival of Trees gala that originally got her involved. The event, which occurs the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, features an auction of trees decorated for the holidays, along with other gifts. “We raise a lot of money, but the thing I love so much about it is the night before,” she says. “We spend the whole day setting everything up, and at about 6 p.m., the autistic children and their families come in, ready for milk and cookies with Santa.” Because many of these kids would be over-stimulated by a trip to the mall to see Santa, this special evening is a treat they would not otherwise be able to enjoy—complete with ‘safe places’ to keep them feeling calm, Kent says.

The Milk and Cookies event is indicative of the way Easter Seals serves its clients every day, Kent says. “We help them have a life of dignity. I have seen so many families that now see a light at the end of the tunnel. We help as many people as we possibly can to live the life they want to live.”

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