Photo courtesy of Autism Society of America-East Tennessee Chapter.
When parents and caregivers first receive an autism diagnosis for their children, many times their first call is to the Autism Society of America.
The East Tennessee Chapter answers these requests for help by providing resources, support and organized social interaction.
"My son has really benefited from the opportunities to make friends with others who are going through the same things he is," said Angela Presnell, a member of the ASA East Tennessee Chapter Board of Directors and mother of an autistic child.
The society is based in Knoxville and supports all ages within 36 counties. In order to continue to meet the demands for assistance in the Tri-Cities, the ASA is hosting its first local fundraiser -- a motorcycle ride.
Each year, the East Tennessee chapter holds a successful fundraising ride in Knoxville. For several years, it's been Presnell's goal for the society to organize another ride closer to home.
The Motorcycle Ministry at Fountain of Life Bible Church in Johnson City stepped in to host the ride scheduled for May 17. Registration will begin at 10 a.m. with games for children. Kickstands will go up at noon. The exact route has not been announced, but Presnell says it's sure to be a good one.
The ASA East Tennessee Chapter is asking for a $20 donation to ride and other vehicles are welcome, too.
Money raised from the motorcycle ride will benefit regular gatherings such as the Friendship Club and Lego Club, as well as educational workshops and an annual conference.
"It's very crucial that we are able to continue providing services for the community because many lives would be much different without them," Presnell said.
Although there are several types of autism, many with the disorder struggle in social situations. So when the Friendship Club takes its yearly trip to Bays Mountain Park, everyone is immersed into a fun, stress-free environment.
About 20 children attend weekly Lego Club meetings in Johnson City. Presnell has witnessed children play alone during their first meeting and within weeks move to the middle of the action.
Funds from the motorcycle ride will help the ASA East Tennessee Chapter sponsor workshops to train parents and caregivers on topics like communication, establishing daily routines, navigating the school system and addressing challenging behaviors.
"That's really the key, to connect families to help, training and activities," said Chris Demas, a society volunteer and parent of an autistic child. "Training is crucial because the things that help an autistic child are not things that you would do for a typical child."
Both Demas and Presnell immediately noticed a difference in each of their children once they began educating themselves about autism.
"If I would have known sooner about the resources available, it would have helped so much," said Presnell, whose 14-year-old son was diagnosed when he was 8.
Statistics released in March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 68 children in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. Autism covers a large range and can vary from person to person.
"On one side you have high functioning with social issues and on the other side it's more severe like non-verbal," Demas said. "I think people are certainly aware of the disorder, but I'm not sure they're aware of the magnitude of the disorder."
Presnell has already seen an increase in calls from all corners of the Tri-Cities asking, "What do I do now?" Reading and researching is crucial, but for many, meeting face-to-face with others is more helpful than any pamphlet.
"My boy is 6, and I've been able to learn from parents who have older children so I know what to expect as Jonah gets older," Demas said. "I've read a million books, but things don't start clicking until you've met someone who's been through it."
For more information about the Autism Society of America East Tennessee Chapter and the motorcycle ride fundraiser, visit http://www.asaetc.org/ or call 423-557-8090. In case of inclement weather, visit the website for a rescheduled date.