If you ask 10 people to define autism, chances are you’ll get 10 different answers.
For some, it means the inability to look others in the eye and communicate based on verbal or nonverbal cues. For others, it can mean intense isolation and even self-harm.
Officially defined as Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD), individuals living with autism truly are on a spectrum. Characterized by a range of conditions that impact social, emotional and communication skills, autism currently impacts over 3.5 million children and adults in the United States and 35,000 people in Middle Tennessee alone.
Autism is not a challenge that can be met with a one-size fits-all approach, and it’s for this very reason that Autism Tennessee exists. Founded in 1996 by a group of mothers seeking to support one another in their parenting of children with autism, the mission behind this Nashville-based nonprofit is to focus not on scale, but people. With a vision to create a community where those on the autism spectrum and their families find respect, acceptance and hope, Autism Tennessee has maintained its personal approach since the very beginning. Today, parents of children with autism volunteer as supporters and crisis interventionists through the organization’s free HELPline. Community members give their time to teach classes for individuals on the spectrum, helping them learn social skills, workplace readiness and interpersonal dynamics.
Even the organization’s director is personally connected.
“I am the executive director of Autism Tennessee but that's not why the mission matters to me,” Babs Tierno said. “I am the proud parent of a 7-year-old son on the autism spectrum and a two-year old son, as well. What happens in the autism world today defines the future level of acceptance, success and independence afforded to kids like mine. So today and everyday I will enrich the lives of individuals on the autism spectrum, my kids included, and their families through education, advocacy and support.”
It’s the commitment of people like Tierno who are indeed changing the way the world – and Tennessee – sees autism. From children’s books to specialized job training, resources are being developed every day to help people fully understand what autism is and to help those on the spectrum thrive in their careers, relationships and everyday lives. Autism Tennessee does this in a myriad of ways, including workshops and support groups for families, and development classes for those who live on the spectrum. The organization has specific programs that educate parents and providers on best practices to support children with autism, and they also provide customized orientations for individuals who have been newly diagnosed. Autism Tennessee also serves adults with a wide range of classes that help educate individuals about their unique place on the spectrum, promote opportunities for increased independence and build relationships within their community.
Photo: Autism Tennessee (Facebook).
Perhaps the most impactful element of Autism Tennessee’s work is their HELPline, a free phone hotline for individuals and families as they experience new challenges on their journey with autism. HELPline’s staff is made up of parents of children on the spectrum who know first-hand what it’s like to live with autism on a daily basis. This HELPline is incredibly vital to the work of Autism Tennessee and is even helping to save lives.
“Recently we had an elementary age child who is on the autism spectrum attempt suicide,” Tierno recalls. “Autism Tennessee's HELPline was able to support the child's family by assembling a crisis team and building a plan to best fit the unique child’s needs. [Through HELPline] the family was able to find a highly qualified and experienced therapist that took their insurance, a social skills group for the child to engage with peers, an equine therapy group, summer camp opportunities, an advocate to assist with educational impacts and a support group for the mother to connect with other parents in her community who are going through similar experiences. Currently, the child is thriving emotionally, performing well above grade level in all subjects and has several meaningful friendships."
Autism Tennessee has spent over a decade building community for people on the autism spectrum, bringing dignity and hope to hundreds of Nashville residents and their families.
If you would like to get involved or learn more about autism and autism spectrum disorder, visit their website at www.AutismTN.org or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.