April is Autism Awareness Month, and many people may not be aware that there’s a group helping local parents and children to understand the complex issue of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Tracy Fernance (Chairperson) and Sue Bell (Secretary/Treasurer) of Mid North Coast Autism Incorporated (Parents Support Group) shed some light on the subject …
What’s the history of the Mid North Coast Autism Inc. group locally?
Tracy: There was another parents’ support group years ago doing a marvellous job in the area. When that finished up, for want of a better term, Mid North Coast Autism was started up by parents Lee and Sally Murray, who ran the group for years. I came on board soon after, and Sue joined up in the last couple of years.
What’s the aim of the group?
Sue: Our main aims are to: support and inform parents and families who are new to the world of Autism; to provide ongoing support to parents and families and to share strategies and ideas; to get families and individuals together to meet and feel a part of our community; and to support schools and students in the form of an outreach service.
Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) is a term many people would be familiar with these days, but it layman’s terms – what exactly does it mean?
Tracy: Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are lifelong developmental disabilities characterised by difficulties in social interaction, impaired communication, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours and sensory sensitivities. The word ‘spectrum’ is used, because the range and severity of the difficulties people with an ASD experience can vary widely. ASDs include Autism, Asperger’s and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).
Typically, in your experience, what are some of the symptoms people with an ASD may display?
Sue: Each and every person on the spectrum is totally unique, but some of the symptoms they may display are: lack of eye contact; no real fear of dangers; difficulty in communicating; anxiety; spinning objects; echoing words or phrases; lining up objects; obsessions; difficulty in interacting with others; difficulty in expressing feelings; sensitivity to sound and textures; and food issues.
What is one of the most challenging experiences you’ve ever had to confront with ASDs, and conversely, what has been the most rewarding?
Tracy: One of my most challenging times was the onset of my child’s diagnosis and falling into the world of Autism. As a mother or parent, we are supposed to be able to fix things, a scratched knee or a broken heart; I could not fix Autism and felt so helpless.
I was overwhelmed, until I attended the Autism group and saw other parents in similar circumstances. I found comfort, unconditional support and a sense of belonging. Over time, I have experienced great challenges as a parent and, working as an SLSO (School Learning Support Officer), I now live in the world of Autism and have a greater knowledge and understanding.
It’s definitely a common pathway, and the families I have been lucky to meet have helped strengthen me as a parent/person. I never take life for granted, and I enjoy the simple things in life. I can’t even imagine living now without an involvement with Autism.
Sue: As a mother, my most challenging experiences have involved trying to get into my son’s world, see things from his point of view, trying to anticipate his needs, as he communicates little verbally. I was told that my son would not be able to ride a bike, go to school or show love due to the severity of his Autism – I am proud to say he is doing all three, albeit with training wheels on the bike.
On the flipside, my son has taught me patience and tolerance and the true meaning of unconditional love … to never give up. The smallest milestones are the sweetest to our family – the first time he said ‘mum’ unprompted, the first time he allowed me to wash his hair without screaming, hugging his siblings.
Through the group I have met the most amazing parents, all with a common goal – for their children to be the best they can be. Autism has taught me not to sweat the small stuff in life, and that has been a gift.
Where and when does the local branch of the Mid North Coast Autism Inc. group meet?
Tracy: We meet at the Valley Industries LifeSkills Building, 5-9 Elizabeth Avenue, Taree on the first Wednesday of each month from 10am to noon (except in the school holidays).
What typically happens at these meetings?
Sue: We take in both the Greater Taree City and Great Lakes Councils’ local government areas. Everyone is welcome – parents, grandparents, carers, children. We have morning tea, and it’s a very casual format; people can come and go as they please, and we have toys for the children.
The group provides families a forum, not only to discuss individual experiences, but to act as a ‘one stop shop’ for information regarding accessing support and medical services in the area. We have guest speakers each meeting – from health, education, government representatives, local therapists, parent presentations/success stories.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Why do you feel it’s so important to raise awareness of ASDs?
Tracy: It’s vitally important to raise awareness, so the community realises people with an ASD are just like anyone else but have different ways of communicating and participating in life. It’s important for the general community to understand and be accepting. Adults and children whom are affected by Autism are similar in a lot of ways; they enjoy experiences in life just like anyone else, but face many challenges along the way.
For example, you may see a child in the shopping centre having a meltdown and instead of thinking the child is being naughty, perhaps they are on the spectrum and are experiencing a sensory overload (sensitivity to lights and noise) − it would be great to offer the parent a helping hand.
How do people access your group and services?
Sue: They can ring Tracy on 6559 3394 or myself on 6554 5351, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Facebook. It’s free to join. We are happy to put you on our email list to let you know of any workshops etc in our area.
Tracy and I would also like to give our thanks to the following people for their friendship and support of our group: Sue Russell (Communities for Children), Mark Kircher and staff (National Australia Bank, Taree and Forster) and Trent Jennison and Tracey Tattersall (Valley Industries).
Thanks Tracy and Sue.
This article can be found in issue 74 of Manning-Great Lakes