Let’s take a walk in somebody else’s shoes. See the world from their perspective. That’s how it’s framed in local schools as volunteers inspire elementary and middle school students to participate in Walk the Walk for Autism, a three-mile walk around Hinsdale to raise funds for Charlie’s Gift Center for Autism and Related Disorders.
“For the younger kids, we talked about how the five senses work differently for people with autism,” says Stephanie Seppanen, a volunteer for The Community House in Hinsdale, which adopted Charlie’s Gift as one of the valuable outreach services they offer to the community. “‘Some people with autism feel their senses very strongly so that the information they get can become very distracting.’”
The Autism Society of America defines autism spectrum disorder as a complex developmental disability impacting the areas of social interaction and communication skills. A person on the spectrum might display behaviors such as a delayed development in the learning of language; difficulty with eye contact or maintaining a conversation; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills; or sensory sensitivity.
Charlie’s Gift offers a range of therapy, counseling, and programs to people challenged by autism spectrum, anxiety, depression, and other related disorders. They offer group therapy services based on age group, surrounding people with a base of peers with whom they can interact, participate, and relate. The group programs and activities help improve their social communication, attention spans, self-regulation, and self esteem.
“We work on making eye contact, how to start a conversation, how to not interrupt people when they’re talking,” says Kathy Ruffulo, the director of clinical services for Charlie’s Gift.
“Parents [of the kids we work with] see change in their child’s emotional maturity. They see the kids understanding themselves and figuring out how they fit into this world of ours.”
But autism and related disorders don’t only affect the individual, it’s a way of life that affects the entire family and can create a feeling of isolation that’s difficult to express. Charlie’s Gift has programs specifically for the parents and siblings of the youth in their programs and everyone within their extended circle of support.
“Brothers and sisters of kids with special needs can get lost in the shuffle,” Ruffulo says. “Sibshops is a national program we participate in where kids meet other kids that have brothers and sisters with special needs. They get to talk about the good and sometimes not-so-good parts of having a sibling with a disability. They get to learn about how it affects their sibling and learn some strategies to continue being an important part of their sibling’s life.”
Their summer programs are particularly fun for the kids enrolled. From late June until the end of July, Horsing Around with your Friends is a horse riding camp working on social activities outdoors and building confidence and motor development through horseback riding. In August, a program called Master Chefs works on social development through cooking easy-to-prepare foods they’ll enjoy eating.
“I want to give tremendous kudos and thanks to the community for all the ways they support Charlie’s Gift, from volunteers to sponsors of events to advisory board members to people whose families are impacted by autism who give us advice,” says Jenifer Fabian, executive director at the Community House. “This is such a caring and generous community. It means so much to the families we serve.”
Last April, Walk the Walk for Autism raised more than $90,000 to offset the cost of the programming and counseling offered to more than 100 families a year that rely on the services offered at Charlie’s Gift. That’s thanks to the efforts of children in our neighborhood schools who listened closely as Community House volunteers explained the interior lives of people with autism spectrum disorder and wanted to help by taking a walk in their shoes.
Charlie’s Gift Center for Autism and Related Disorders is located at 1048 West Ogden Avenue in Downers Grove, 630-810-1200, thecommunityhouse.org/charliesgift