Heroes of the Week: Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin Volunteers
The Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin (ASSEW) is a half-century old grassroots, volunteer-led non-profit organization dedicated to supporting autistic people and educating the public about autism. On one hand, the ASSEW provides training and information to first responders (E.M.T.s, police, firefighters) and legislators to ensure the safety of autistic people; on the other hand, they offer services for autistic people themselves.
"We envision a world where individuals and families living with autism are able to maximize their quality of life, and live in a society in which their talents and skills are appreciated and valued," ASSEW executive director Emily Levine says.
To reach that goal, they offer a wide range of programs such as a help line, a specialized library, support groups, training sessions, "new parents" kits to help those whose children have recently been diagnosed and quaterly autism orientation classes, free of charge. To reduce the potential isolation of autistic people, the ASSEW also organizes social meetings for autistic adults and for families with autistic members, so they can network and realize they are accepted and understood.
"People with autism are often misunderstood, rejected and judged," Levine deplores. "If you think and communicate in a certain way that is perceived by the majority of the world as abnormal, there is judgment and stigma. We try to help the non-autistic people in the world reframe their thinking, so that they understand that different is not always wrong."
Besides the social stigma surrounding autism, the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin also battles the direct discrimination autistic people face. Appropriate housing and employment are much harder to obtain for autistic people, and they need more medical attention than the average person.
"Currently, we are concerned with potential cuts to Medicaid services that support people with disabilities," Levine adds. "Caps to Medicaid and block grants have been proposed, and they are very concerning to the disability community."
All is not bad however, and the ASSEW is registering some resounding successes. Every June, they offer a bike camp for people with developmental disabilities to learn to ride a bike over a period of five days. It helps with fitness, transportation and inclusion of disabled people; but more importantly, it is a major confidence boost for the new riders, after they finally master this skill that had eluded them for years.
"I remember a participant in our bike program, a boy who was about 12," Levine remembers. "It took us 90 minutes to convince him to put on the helmet and sit on the bike. His mom wanted to withdraw him from camp. We convinced them to come back. By Friday, he was riding his bike on two wheels with the biggest grin on his face. We were all in tears."
The Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin's biggest fundraiser of the year, Dylan's Run/Walk for Autism is Sunday, Sept. 10 at the Henry Meier Festival Park. On-site registration starts at 8:30 a.m. and the run/walk starts at 10:30 a.m.
For more information, visit www.assew.org or call 414-988-1260.