Nonprofit organizations abound in Howard County, and Howard Magazine highlights who they are, what they do and how you can help.
Name: Howard County Autism Society
Who: Judy Grusso, executive director
What is your mission?
The Howard County Autism Society provides information, support and advocacy and promotes awareness of autism that values the dignity and uniqueness of each individual.
What kinds of programs and services do you provide?
Last year, we served more than 2,000 people. We provide networking opportunities for parents; offer information and referral services; advocate on behalf of individuals with autism spectrum disorder; and sponsor presentations by experts. In addition, we sponsor three monthly support groups. Social activities are also provided to increase opportunities for individuals with autism and their families.
One way we provide support is through a resource center in Columbia, which is open daily from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The Howard County Autism Society works to build and maintain strong partnerships to make Howard County more inclusive of individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Our work includes:
• Training coaches and camp managers with the county’s Department of Recreation & Parks and public schools to improve their knowledge of autism spectrum disorders.
• Managing a Family Advocacy and Parent Education program that provides one-on¿one assistance and information on special education issues and special education law to parents through a grant from the Howard County Department of Citizen Services.
• Collaborating with Howard County’s Department of Recreation & Parks to design and construct a universal “destination” playground to provide the least restrictive play environment.
• Developing an inclusion manual for camp counselors as well as proper protocol to follow when a child goes missing from camp.
• Working with the police department, fire and rescue, and the county hospital to train first responders about caring for individuals on the autism spectrum.
Our partnership with the Howard County Police Department has yielded numerous benefits, including the 911 flagging program. Today, parents and caregivers can flag their home addresses in the 911 Call Center Database so that first responders will know they are en route to a home where a person with autism resides. This program allows families to provide first responders with helpful tips and key information about the person with autism. The Howard County Police Department is also working on a Rapid Return Program, a tracking device that helps locate individuals who wander.
• Creating “sensory-friendly” movies, now offered nationwide through AMC Theaters. One Saturday each month, AMC offers a sensory-friendly movie experience by reducing sensory overstimulation. The lights are kept on, the volume is turned down, and guests are permitted to move around as needed. In collaboration with The Mall in Columbia, we also offer sensory-friendly visits with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny prior to the mall’s official hours.
• Partnering with the Howard County Public School System to establish a nationally recognized early intervention program, and collaboration on transition planning for students once they leave the school system.
How many volunteers are a part of your organization, and what types of roles do they play?
The Howard County Autism Society counts on hundreds of volunteers each year. Volunteers serve as board members, help out with our annual One Step Closer Autism Walk & 5K Run, serve as ambassadors to the community, and assist with monthly support groups as well as periodic workshops and trainings. If you are interested in volunteering, call 410-290-3466.
Is there a cost to those who use your services?
All programs and services for the Howard County Autism Society are free. Some activities, however, are restricted to members of the society; annual dues are $25 per family. In addition, each year the organization raises more than $225,000 from individuals, corporations, foundations and the Howard County Government to support its services.
Any important events coming up?
April is Autism Awareness Month, and several events are being planned, notably a celebration of our 20th anniversary at our annual gala April 26 at The Hotel at Turf Valley. (For details, visit howard¿autism.org or call 410¿290¿3466).
We will also be sponsoring a workshop featuring Shelli Reynolds, Ph.D., director of Individual Advocacy and Family Support, University of Missouri at Kansas City, in which Reynolds will address the role of families in the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities, as well as the individual’s need for self-determination. This presentation will take place April 9 at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center.
Finally, we have been named as one of the beneficiaries of the Albright Foundation’s 17th-annual Golf & Tennis Classic at Hobbit’s Glen on May 6th; we invite the entire community to come out and support this event. Details can be found at albrightfoundation.org/events.asp.
What is the satisfaction you and your team gain from your role in this organization?
Our satisfaction is gained by improving Howard County as a place of opportunity; a place where individuals with autism have opportunities to go to school, to work, and to live alongside their peers; and a place where uniqueness is valued and individuals with autism are viewed as making a worthwhile contribution to the community.