While the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)  is growing every year, government funding to help them and their families continues to be reduced or eliminated. Fortunately for those facing the financial and emotional burden of autism, there are local organizations and resources to help.

    St. Louis-based Action for Autism (AFA) has provided dozens of families with financial assistance since its founding by Brad Buechler in 2008. “The number of diagnoses is growing so fast, and the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism is estimated to be between $3.5 million and $5 million,” explains Sheila Charlton, AFA’s vp of financial assistance and scholarships. “Early intervention is so critical and many families cannot afford the required therapy. We provide funding for children to get the therapy they need, because every child should have the same opportunities.”

    Most families find AFA by word-of-mouth, usually at the suggestion of local therapists or other families who have benefitted from its assistance. “We also try to get our name out there through organizations like Missouri First Steps and MOFEAT (Missouri Families for Effective Autism Treatment),” Charlton says.

    AFA partnered with Howard Park Center in Ellisville last August. “It’s been a very good match,” Charlton says. “We heard about Howard Park from families who had come to us for help with therapy costs. They told us they loved the therapy programs, but they needed help with education, as well. So we began volunteering at Howard Park events, and they began to help us, too. We got to know them and we were so impressed with the work they were doing.” In addition to helping children on the autism spectrum, she adds, the school also offers education to children with other neuro-developmental delays.

        The affiliation will allow both organizations to offer more services to more families. “We are growing! Right now Howard Park has seven different programs and we are adding an additional program in July,” Charlton reports. “Our long-term goal is a school where we can accommodate children all the way through high school, and perhaps a technical center. Some of the kids may go on to a regular college. We want every child to have the education that can help them become part of the community.”

    AFA sponsors several special events throughout the year to raise funds to support its mission. “Our second annual Walk the Red Carpet gala is April 30 at the Hilton St. Louis At The Ballpark,” Charlton says. “This is the first time we’ve had an event downtown. We’ll have silent and live auctions, and we’re delighted that Heidi Glauss is returning as emcee. She’s so much fun and does such a wonderful job!”

    Families helped by AFA have a chance to meet donors and sponsors at the annual Family Puzzle Parade & Kids’ Carnival. “It’s a wonderful chance for the people who are being helped to meet the people who are helping. One family starts off the walk and carries the banner. Of course, we always try to cater to the children. Last year we had a clown, and the Original Pancake House came out and made breakfast for everyone.” This year’s event will be May 28 in Queeny Park.

    In her role at AFA, Charlton has witnessed many success stories. “Noah is a perfect example: He’s 7 years old, and we’ve arranged for him to attend camp for a few summers now. Noah has some socialization difficulties, and his family can’t say enough good things about the success they see when he attends camp. His mom tells us he’s always talking about the friends he’s made, and he has play dates for the first time. Every summer he is so excited to go back.” Charlton says stories like Noah’s are the best part of her job. “I worked in the corporate world and that was wonderful, but this is a whole different level of gratification—being able to meet and help these families. It’s tremendously satisfying!” 

On the cover: Action for Autism hosts its second annual Walk the Red Carpet gala on April 30 at the Hilton St. Louis At The Ballpark. For details call 636-449-0352 or email info@afastl.org.