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It Takes a (Compassionate) Village

Author Katy Kollar
Date August 5, 2019

It takes a village. Sounds cliche, right?

Anyone who’s ever been a parent – or played a maternal or paternal role in a child’s life – knows it to be absolutely true. It takes a community of people with heart, energy, and insight to support the growth and development of a young person. And while raising any child comes with its fair share of difficulties that require a wonderful circle of support, raising a child with autism demands a village with an extra layer of collective love and compassion.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, with its wide range of communication, sensory processing, and behavior challenges, is not easy to understand or navigate. I know because I’ve experienced it first-hand with my son Owen, whose diagnosis is coupled with that of a seizure disorder. Since he became a full-time residential student at Anderson Center for Autism, however, our family has expanded to a wider circle of people – a metaphorical ‘village’ of staff, volunteers, teachers, and therapists who have helped Owen shine.

And, just a few miles up the road from Anderson is a literal village: the village of Rhinebeck, New York, which we decided to make our home when our middle child graduated high school. We’d been living on Long Island, and wanted to be closer to Owen. The Hudson Valley is a beautiful place and we decided to move to Rhinebeck. It is here that we’ve discovered another group of people who remind us that with the help of an entire village, we can do far more for our children than we can do alone.

This discovery was made through a recent project in which I became deeply involved. Anderson Center for Autism approached public officials about the possibility of making Rhinebeck an Autism Supportive Community. There was a resounding ‘yes!’. Within a very short time, Anderson staff secured a grant, the Village put together a volunteer organizing committee, and the first public forums were scheduled to ensure that anyone who wanted to better understand autism and how they could be more accommodating had a chance to attend a workshop. In this very small community, dozens showed up and took action. From individuals and businesses to places of worship and the public school district, nearly 60 pledges were made to “Do 1 Thing” to make their presence and operations more autism-supportive.

I went door-to-door myself to request support – and was blown away by the kindness. Many of the businesses have gotten to know our family since we often bring Owen to the Village; he can be quite memorable with his passion for crazy cat t-shirts, wild socks, and the “thumb bump.” As a proud mom, I’d like to think that Owen’s presence in their lives may have played a small role in their willingness to get involved – but I believe it’s more than that. This group seems to understand that we all share a responsibility for raising the children of our communities – that we all need to live the “it takes a village” cliche if future generations will thrive.

The results have been exceptional. Some stores offered to soften their lighting and music so as to prevent sensory overload. Restaurants pledged to offer reduced wait times. Community groups and businesses developed plans for “Sensory Safe Spaces” during large events so that individuals with autism and their families would have a place to get away from the crowds and decompress. It’s been a beautiful outpouring.

From the time Owen was young, we always worked on community integration. We started small – by just walking into a grocery store to buy one preferred item before we’d leave, which equaled total success in our book. Other times we’d go to the donut shop for a treat – and, whenever possible, actually sit there to eat the donut – illustrating Owen’s progress. We had to plan for these experiences, always aware of the fact that merchants or restaurant owners may not understand our needs. They could be incredibly stressful at times.

But here in this little village of Rhinebeck, people decided it was time to learn and time to understand. They get it – that 1 in 59 of our kids has autism, which means that countless family members and loved ones are also impacted. They understand that if everyone does one thing, endless possibilities can reveal themselves.

Yes – it takes a village to raise a child. And there’s nothing cliche about that.