Holiday hope for autistic children

Published 8:48 pm Thursday, December 7, 2017

Is it just me or does the Christmas music start earlier each year? The moment I hear the first song, I begin to focus on the holidays. In general, that means time off from work, kids home from school and reuniting with family members.

Family time can be challenging and rewarding. A dose of patience helps ensure that the time spent with family produces good memories for years to come.

The holidays are also a time when families see one another struggle with bills, depression and sadness. There are many reasons for this. Many of which no human power can cure. But, there are some circumstances that are fixable and should never take place.

One of those circumstances is watching families with autistic children or adults in the home suffer during the holiday season or at any time during the year. It is truly an unbearable thing to watch. Yet, many have not seen it because the suffering takes place in the shadows.

Today, 1 in 68 children in our community are born with autism. Autism is partially defined by what is called a “spectrum” or can other times be visualized as a sliding scale.  For example, some children are high functioning on the scale and are often referred to as having Asperger’s. Other children are on the lower end of the scale where they may not speak or be able to function by themselves in society. Then there are the many children who are somewhere between the two extremes which makes a “one size fits all” approach of working with these children and their families so complex.

It’s common to see groups providing support for issues like autism at the national level. Autism Speaks is the leader in this effort.  But, national organizations desperately need help from local organizations to quickly and directly impact communities? In June 2017, one local community leader, Jason Swindle and several other leaders formed the West Georgia Autism Foundation to fill the overwhelming need for autism support in West Georgia.

Since then, the WGAF has grown like wildfire, partnered with Autism Speaks, and gained support from nationally known figures like Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys and General Gary Harrell; commander of the Black Hawk helicopter in the true story and movie Black Hawk Down.

The foundation was started with a vision that every family who has an autistic child or adult living in the home in West Georgia has access to the resources and services they require. We will carry this out by providing financial assistance for qualifying services to providers to support families touched by autism.

The foundation promotes autism awareness through various forms of media, coalitions and the generous people in the west Georgia community. We are educating the public about autism to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism and the tear down the stigma and misinformation associated with autism.

So, here are the holidays. For many families with autistic children, it is a time of greater financial hardship, having their child exposed to large groups of people and wondering whether people accept their child.

No one in this community should ever experience the holidays under these circumstances.  It is simply unacceptable.

But, there is hope.

With the vast number of children on the spectrum today, there is little doubt that many of you will meet an autistic child for the first time this holiday season. It is critical to prepare yourself to ensure your interaction is memorable for you and these kids.

Here are a few tips we offer at the WGAF about how to get the most out of your time with an autistic family member or meeting an autistic child for the first time this holiday season.

Interact with them just like any other child. Nothing is more hurtful to the child or the parent then being avoided, ignored or treated differently. Remember that God made each of us exactly the way he wanted and for a reason. Each of us have struggles in life whether others can see them or not.

Be aware that these kids may be sensitive to loud sounds, large groups of new people, or the new surroundings so don’t be offended if they need to find a quiet place to retreat.  Many autistic children struggle mightily because of their lack of social skills.  Quiet “one on one” interaction can often make a child feel comfortable and appreciated.

Consider taking gifts like toys out of the box before wrapping them.  This will cut down on the stress of untying all those bag ties that hold our toys in the box.

Take 15 minutes to research autism on Google; and have fun! Take pictures and enjoy being with each other during this holiday season.

We hope you all enjoy your time together with friends and family and if you can spend that time with a family member that has autism, we hope you will appreciate that person and the often-silent struggles these families deal with on a day to day basis.

As the holidays come and go over the years in West Georgia, there is no doubt that our community will become the example others look to regarding how to treat and support people with autism.

To learn more about the West Georgia Autism Foundation please visit

Scott Jones is the Vice-President and member of the Board of Directors of the WGAF.  He also represents private forest landowners around the country on national issues vital to their sustainability.