April is National Autism Awareness month. It's also the first month that Columbus Parent Magazine and Kroger partner to raise money for local charitable organizations.

April is National Autism Awareness month. It's also the first month that Columbus Parent Magazine and Kroger partner to raise money for local charitable organizations. What better time to learn more about Easter Seals, the first organization to benefit from the partnership, and a leading provider of autism services?


Easter Seals history
The Easter Seals story begins in 1919 when Edgar Allen, an Elyria, Ohio businessman, lost his son in a streetcar accident. There were no adequate medical services to help save his son's life, prompting him to begin the National Society for Crippled Children in conjunction with Rotary clubs. This organization was the first of its kind dedicated to helping children with disabilities. Over the years the scope, and name, of the organization has changed. But the aim - to serve people with disabilities - has remained the same.


Partnering with the community
Raising money to help people with disabilities in central Ohio is the aim of the Kroger and Columbus Parent partnership. "Twenty-five percent of our revenue comes from fund-raising or contributed income," said Karin Zuckerman, CEO of Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio. "We've been lucky to have Kroger as a tremendous corporate partner for the last 20 years," Zuckerman said.

"Kroger sells root beer floats in July to benefit Easter Seals and we wouldn't be able to do what we do for children and adults with disabilities without these types of relationships. We are just thrilled that Columbus Parent and Kroger are partnering and that Easter Seals gets to partner with them. We feel very fortunate."


Expanding the scope
While Easter Seals has always provided services to adults and children with disabilities in the community - like adult day services and early childhood education -it also provides services to children on the autism spectrum, and their families. "We are the largest provider of autism services in the nation," said Lynn Dudek, autism services manager, Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio.

"We are focused on the services needed for individuals with autism and their families from our national headquarters through every affiliate right to central Ohio," Dudek said. And the programs offered by Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio are the ones needed by the community, said Rob DuVall, Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio director of marketing.

"What we do in Columbus isn't what we do in Cleveland," he continued. "We meet the needs of families with disabilities here. If we have gaps and needs we create a specific program for our community."


Autism services
Because of the troubled economy, many families need the services now more than ever, and Easter Seals is stepping up to the plate. "Lots of families have lost their homes, jobs, or health insurance," said Zuckerman, "and they have less disposable income." As the number of clients needing services grows, so does the need for programs such as early intervention and outpatient programs that offer speech therapy to improve communication skills, occupational therapy to address sensory needs, and physical therapy to assist with movement and ability to play.

Addressing social needs is also at the forefront. "Every child with autism has difficulty with social interactions," said Dudek. "So we conduct social skills groups for different ages that meet the unique needs of each group." For young children the program may focus on how to play, for older children it might be how to talk to girls or what to do if you have a crush.

Another group for 17- to 18-year-olds addresses job placement social skills. "We also have in-home services to provide care and support to families who may have a [family] member of any age with autism," said Dudek. "A small child with autism grows up to be an adult. So the programs that we offer are comprehensive in nature. No matter where the family is on the journey, we can help them."


Respite care
As parents dealing with autism know, getting time for each other can be challenging. So Easter Seals offers respite services for a Friday evening, a Saturday, even all weekend. "Parents can go on dates knowing their child (age 6 and up) will be in a safe place," said Dudek.

"Meanwhile, the child is watching movies, making snacks or practicing social skills. It allows the kids to be kids and the families to reconnect." The 8-hour Saturday respite care sessions allow children to go on field trips into the community and have new experiences. The program also gets volunteers from the local high school, giving them a window into perhaps a different world.


Autism study
There is much to learn about autism. Easter Seals helped shed some light on the subject with its 2008 Easter Seals Living with Autism Study, compiling information from 1,625 parents of children on the spectrum (age 30 years and younger) and 917 parents with typically developing children (age 30 years and younger).

"The unique thing about our study is that it gave numbers to those things we intuitively knew families with autism deal with every day," said Dudek. "It also debunked a commonly heard statement that families with autism experience more divorce. Our study found this is not true. We are also able to look at the impact that autism has on multiple aspects of a family's life."


In the end ...
Easter Seals is always there. The organization doesn't just treat the person with autism; it treats the whole family, said Dudek. And whether or not you know what services you or your family need, or if you don't know where to start, don't worry. "We'll help you navigate the system," said DuVall. "We work with other like-minded non-profits, collaborating to service the families who need us. If you don't know who to call, call us."

Marguerite Marsh is a freelance writer in Columbus. She writes about many topics, including families, relationships, artists and pets.