September 16, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The dentist. The doctor. The supermarket. Taking a child into these situations isn’t always pleasant. For parents of children with autism, these and most any other foray into public can, on occasion, devolve into chaos.

“Children with autism usually have problems transitioning from a preferred activity to a new situation,” says Lisa Meridith, mother of 6-year-old Colton, who was diagnosed with autism at age three. “Many children are highly sensitive to sensory stimulation like smells, lights, noises, and textures. A trip to the grocery store may be quite stressful for a child. Meltdowns are very common over the slightest things.”

Caring for a child with autism has long been a lonely road for parents. Gail Werner-Robertson and Scott Robertson, who themselves have two sons diagnosed with autism, wanted to change that. In 2008, they founded the Autism Action Partnership, a nonprofit foundation that provides programs and information for parents of children with autism across Nebraska.

“They understood the difficulties of finding good services for their kids,” says Sara Barada, interim executive director and program manager for the Partnership.

Meridith says she became involved with the Autism Action Partnership, known as AAP, because she didn’t want other parents to feel as helpless as she did when Colton was first diagnosed. Once she became involved with the foundation, she says, she knew she had found her “life mission.” She wanted to be an advocate for those impacted by autism.

Besides offering programs, AAP also funds programs that augment autism services throughout the state. Circle of Friends, which began with just five schools, has now expanded to 190 schools statewide. Teachers in the program not only work with autistic children on social skills, they also educate children with whom the child with autism associates. When children know more about autism, they tend to be more supportive of the child with autism.

“We’ve found that once you explain to children the reasons why someone might be [acting differently], you see a reduction in bullying,” Barada says.

“This group has allowed Colton to make some lasting friendships with his classmates,” Meridith states. “Before this, Colton could not name one person he could call a friend.”

Other helpful services offered by AAP include the Resource Center, which is available on their website, www.autismaction.org. Whether families with an autistic child need to find a dentist understanding of autism or language therapy services, the AAP website is a sort of one-stop shop. The Resource Center also includes services for those with autism over the age of 18, which, Barada says, can often be difficult to find without help.

“With the AAP programs and the in-home ABA therapy he is receiving, Colton has overcome many obstacles since he was diagnosed,” Meridith says. “I have one wish: that people educate themselves and their children about autism. Teach them that different does not mean less.”

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