When Gaile Valcho moved to Holly Springs last June, she was faced with having to research and locate resources for her 9-year old son, Brady, who is on the autism spectrum, after years of accessing services in Florida.
A tireless advocate for Brady, Gaile knew she would need to secure services and build relationships with teachers, therapists, and other health providers in her new community. But she was a little surprised that so much of what she needed wasn’t readily available at her fingertips like she was used to. “I work hard and fight hard to get my child what he needs,” Gaile explains, “but I really had to seek out entirely new connections to the autism community and discovered that a lot of the support system we need can only be found in the larger communities like Raleigh and Durham… maybe Cary.”
A resourceful mom, however, Gaile found what she needed and was able to get Brady enrolled at school and into the services he needed. Fast forward a few months, and Gaile was starting to experience more severe behavioral issues with Brady. He began trying to run away when he was upset, and on one particularly cold day, he got out of the house and actually made it four houses down the street before she was able to get him under control. She began to worry about what would happen if he was able to get away completely and she couldn’t get him back in the house.
Gaile happened to run into fellow running club member and police captain Michael Patterson in the grocery store shortly after that incident, and asked him “what would the police department do with a runaway, especially one with special needs?” With the recent death of a therapist in Florida who was shot by police while trying to deal with a patient who had run away from a group home, Gaile and Capt. Patterson discussed an idea for building awareness in the community for these issues, and developing a positive relationship between parents of special needs kids and the local public safety personnel.
The concept born out of the conversation was to organize an “autism awareness” day that provides access to resources for families of children on the autism spectrum and allows them to register their children in a database that provides the police department with the information they need to properly respond to potential situations. They took the proposal to the police chief, who approved it immediately. They then decided to add vendors that provide services to the autistic community and demonstrations from groups who cater to children with autism.
he end result was an “Autism Awareness Day” on April 1. Held from 1:00-3:00 pm at the Holly Springs Police Department, the event was a collaboration between the Holly Springs public safety community and Gaile’s team of volunteers. Vendors included Shining Stars Therapy from Fuquay-Varina, ARC of the Triangle, Alliance Behavioral, and Camp Bluebird, among others.
These vendors were on hand to provide information about services they provide to autistic clients of all ages. Autism Society of North Carolina was on hand with a booth to provide information to family members as well as basic information about autism.
The fire department clocked 284 attendees, which was far more than Vacho anticipated and made all her hard work worthwhile! The two-hour event was packed full of activities for all ages and even attracted residents who were just driving by and stopped to see what it was all about. Despite the crowds, Vacho was happy that the event was not crazy or chaotic and seemed to have just the right amount of fun and information for both the kids and parents.
Tiger Rock Martial Arts shared karate demonstrations during the event. Tiger Rock offers instruction for autistic children as part of their normal class structure. Push, Play, Sing—a local music school—was on hand to share what they offer to children with special needs, especially those on the autism spectrum. And Bounce-n-Slide donated two hours of bounce house entertainment to top off the afternoon with some pure, unadulterated bouncing activity.
Mr. Softie and Mama Voulos food trucks were happy to support the event and were available to provide refreshment options for families. DJ John Draisy offered musical entertainment between other demonstrations and activities to round out the activities. There was even a “calming room” inside the police department for families to use in the event of overstimulation. Police and fire personnel were in attendance, interacting with children and their parents—offering fire truck and police car tours in addition to helping with various activities throughout the event.
The primary intent of the event was to create and expand the registry in Holly Springs for families with children on the spectrum. The registry will help first-responders know what challenges they may face if they are called to respond to a crisis in the home of an autistic child or an individual with special needs. The registry gives parents an opportunity to log all the nuances of behavior and family dynamics that might be able to help the police respond in an appropriate way if they are ever called to the home.
“We are so grateful to the public safety community for partnering with us on what we hope is just the first of many annual Autism Awareness Days,” said Valcho after the event. “There is a lot of sadness in the world in our space, and we want our kids and families to be comfortable turning to our police and fire personnel in a crisis situation.” The police department was very happy with the success of the event, and Vacho gave the proclamation to Captain Patterson to hang on his wall as a thank you for all of his help with planning.
Valcho hopes that in addition to future awareness events like this one, she will be able to start offering programs in the area for parents and families who need help accessing services and resources—even moral support. “We are in a great area for resources. UNC is second only to Harvard in the area of autism research. But families have to travel great distances to access a lot of those resources, so I hope to help bring some of those resources to more local venues.” Vacho has been asked to offer more events like this one and plans to expand the event next year – either geographically or in terms of size.