Behaviors such as arm-flapping and tantrums that seem unprovoked and uncontrollable are typical for children with autism, and their families and friends learn to take it in stride. However, such behaviors, combined with the deficits in language and social skills that characterize autism, can make family outings something of an ordeal. So it’s a relief when parents can bring their children—those with autism and those with typical development—for a night out among people who don’t stare and point and judge.
That night out—an Au-Some Evening—takes place on the second Friday of the month at Explore & More Children’s Museum in East Aurora, thanks to the efforts of Kathy Ralabate Doody (pictured), assistant professor of exceptional education, and Jana Mertz, program coordinator at the autism center at Women’s and Children’s Hospital. The program was recently profiled in the Buffalo News.
“Parents say that people here understand autism,” said Doody, who provided training to museum staff before the program launched in September 2012. Doody, whose son Kevin has autism, encourages her graduate students to participate. “Their presence adds another level of supervision to the evening,” said Doody. “That makes it easier for the parents. The program itself meets the needs of parents who have said they need a place where they could go for recreation as a family.”
Misperceptions about autism persist. “Some people think that people with autism don’t have emotions, or don’t express them,” said Doody. “So sometimes our students are surprised to see kids hug their parents or give out high-fives. It’s fascinating, rewarding work, and some of our students volunteer regularly.”
Doody, who taught kindergarten before turning to exceptional education, said that her awareness of autism was valuable when her son’s development seemed atypical. “The doctor insisted there was nothing wrong,” said Doody. However, thanks to her advocacy, he was diagnosed with autism at 14 months.
“That meant we were able to start intervention early,” said Doody, “and that’s critical.” Today, he’s a high-school student who likes computers and sound and video production. Doody said, “His whole life is a celebration.”
An Au-Some Evening features exhibits that encourage several kinds of play, including pretending; sensory play that involves light and sound and touch; and cause and effect, like dropping a ball down a chute to see what happens. Doody hopes to conduct research that helps identify what kind of play engages children with autism. “It’s more and more important because of the increasing incidence of autism,” said Doody. The Center for Disease Control reported that the estimated prevalence of autism spectrum disorder was one in 88 children in 2008, an increase of 23 percent over 2006.
“We have a strong education system here in Western New York that’s made all the difference for Kevin,” said Doody, who volunteers her expertise at Explore & More. “As a teacher and a mom, I’m excited by all the opportunities kids have now. It’s wonderful to be able to give something back.”