Kathryn Mikronis’ son Jimmy was 2 years old when he was diagnosed with autism. She turned immediately to the Autism Society of Southern Arizona (ASSA) to figure out her next steps.
“I got this diagnosis. Now what do I do and how do I get my child help?” she asked them.
ASSA helped her find help for Jimmy: referring her to the Arizona Long Term Care System (ALTCS) program through the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities. When the maze of programs, questionnaires and bureaucracy became confusing, ASSA was also there to help.
“The Autism Society helped me with the process of how it works,” she said. “They were very helpful in navigating the system.”
The rate of childhood autism diagnosis is higher in Arizona than it is in other states in the country. More kids—one in 64—are being diagnosed with autism in Arizona than the national average, which is around one in 68.
ASSA aims to help address the discrepancy, and to better the lives of everyone affected by autism. This means providing services, like Purrs for Autism, which teaches children with autism about empathy and animal care, and the Sonoran Dolphins Swim Club, which teaches special needs kids how to swim. But it also means advocacy efforts, educational opportunities and connecting families to other resources.
“Sometimes, when you get a diagnosis, you feel like you’ve been pushed off a cliff,” said Brie Seward, associate director of ASSA. “I feel like my job is taking a parent’s hand and guiding them up from the cliff.”
Seward’s son was diagnosed when he was 3, so she knows that “falling off a cliff” feeling. Her son, of course, is one of the primary reasons she began volunteering for ASSA’s marketing committee about two years ago. Today, her son is 6, and Seward said he is “enjoying life like a young first grader should be,” thanks to a slew of early intervention efforst. “I think my personal experience really helps families, because they know I’ve walked in their shoes,” she said.
One of the ways that ASSA raises money each year is through their annual Jeans and Jewels Gala, which is being held for the third year in a row on Sunday, Oct. 15. Attendees can get all dressed up in their denim and rhinestone finest to play games of chance, enjoy live music, be wowed by a roaming musician named “Magic Kenny Bang Bang” and play a wine bottle ring toss game.
“We wanted it to be more of a casual, comfortable, fun event,” said Lynda Weigel-Firor, secretary of the board of directors for ASSA and co-chair for the upcoming gala.
The gala is an important source of funding for the programs that ASSA provides.
“Oh my gosh, over the last two years, we’ve added a ton of programs,” Weigel-Firor said. “[The gala] has helped tremendously in our ability to create more programs and reach more people.”
Weigel-Firor also has a 16-year-old daughter with Autism. Weigel-Firor got involved in order to be a part of developing long-term solutions for children with autism, which means preparing them to become adults with autism. When these kids graduate from high school, their social system oftentimes falls apart.
“Some people on the board are experts on getting kids trained for employment,” Weigel-Firor said. “They’re laying the groundwork for my daughter to someday be employed.”
They also provide services to help connect individuals and families affected by autism, like Parents Night Out, where parents and adult siblings of special needs individuals can get together to talk and enjoy a meal.
“Having a child with a developmental disorder can be extremely isolating,” Weigel-Firor said. “As soon as you start getting involved with the community, it makes all the difference, because you know where to go and you know who to talk to.”
In the past, gala attendees have ranged from local professionals and board members to parents of children with autism and therapists and other service providers that work with families affected by autism. Seward said the diversity of guests is a wonderful way to provide a full-circle connection for community members affected by autism.
After Mikronis, Jimmy’s mom, benefitted from ASSA’s help so much, she served on the board for a total of 10 years. She stepped down earlier this year in preparation to focus on Jimmy as he made the transition into middle school, but still attends some of ASSA’s programs. She said she’s looking forward to attending the gala.
“It’s important for people to come, not only to raise funds, but to find out about what it is we do and what we offer,” Weigel-Firor said.
For parents like Weigel-Firor, Seward and Mikronis themselves, and for every parent that has called the ASSA office at their wit’s end and got off the phone being able to breathe better, these services are important in a very visceral way.
“There’s people that come in the office and they just come in defeated, and deflated, and I can sit down with them and build them a plan,” Seward said. “Sometimes, all you need is a few phone numbers.”
And sometimes, all you need is more awareness of autism, and of all the programs that are there to help, so that more and more people can step up to support the cause.
“If, by going to this gala, 10 more people find out about us and 10 more lives are changed, then we did our job,” Seward said.
The Autism Society of Southern Arizona’s third annual Jeans and Jewels Gala starts at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 15, at Oasis Wild Horse Ranch, 6801 N. Camino Verde. Tickets will be available at as-az.org until midnight on Wednesday, Oct. 11, or up until the event by calling 770-1541. ly intervention efforts.