Love You to Pieces

Autism Community Connection hosts awareness and fundraising campaign during Autism Awareness Month

By Nicole Davis

In the last year, people across the world have been told to stay at home and stay apart to stay safe. The COVID-19 pandemic has been isolating in many ways. Schools and day centers shut down while other socialization-based groups went virtual. With all of that, Autism Community Connection has experienced more parents coming to them, looking for ways they can offer their children and young adults the socialization experiences they need.

Kelli Higgins, executive director, Autism Community Connection. *Submitted photo.

“One of the things we do have, we’re limited at the moment, is our Young Adult Connection program,” said Kelli Higgins, executive director. “Young adults meet once a month. The thought with a social group is if you have a close group of friends that support each other, you tend to be more successful. This group we currently have has been together more than a year and they’re starting to call each other up, hang out outside of our organization. They have these little meetings on Zoom. We are wanting to create more. There’s a need. We have a waitlist of six individuals wanting to be part of it now, but we need funds to make programs like that succeed. And partnerships. With more partnerships and funding, we can really make a difference, especially for young adults.”

Love You to Pieces campaign

ACC offers resources and programming to individuals with autism who reside in and around Johnson County. April is Autism Awareness Month and ACC is kicking it off with its Love You to Pieces campaign. ACC will do a social media campaign – on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – offering information about autism and its organization. During this time, anyone interested may donate for the opportunity to be included in a commemorative video that ACC will show at the end of the month. Depending on the amount of donation, contributors will receive the name of their loved one in the video, a photo of their loved one in the video or a 30-second video, along with ACC pins, notepads and T-shirts. The goal is to raise $5,000. 

“It’s a great way to get their name out there, to show the community that they’re willing to help fund our organization who in turn supports individuals affected by autism through our own programming.”

The last part of the campaign is a series of Dine to Donate events at: Vino Villa, Chick-fil-A, Arni’s, Campbell’s Highland Grill and Chicago’s Pizza. Vino Villa is the first on April 2 which is Autism Awareness Day. The restaurant has created a special menu for that night for which ACC receives the proceeds.

“I’m looking forward to more people in our community being aware of what we’re trying to do and hopefully gain new partnerships and support from the community,” said Kelli Webb, board president. “We’re a pretty small organization but we’re trying to make an impact across a number of individuals and families who have autism, particularly in areas that have an unmet need. We’re so appreciative of any help, of people who want to partner with us in furthering this mission. It makes an impact and as we are a smaller organization, it’s goes a long way.”

Celebrating one year since its name change

ACC used to be the Johnson County Autism Support Group, founded in 2005 by a group of local parents. The name changed in April of 2020 to allow for the group to reach families beyond Johnson County. 

Higgins was hired as executive director in 2019. She previously worked for an autism organization in Indiana as its state events person. 

“Coming here to Autism Community Connection, I saw a really good opportunity to grow the organization and get more focused on where I live,” said Higgins, a Greenwood resident. “I wanted to focus more on this area, on Johnson County and the surrounding counties. Once we get established here, we want to keep growing and maybe move towards southern Indiana.”

Leading with firsthand experience

Katie, a member of the Young Adult Connection Group, plays a game of oversized Jenga during one of their monthly outings in the Fall of 2020. *Submitted photo

Higgins has two daughters, on opposite ends of the autism spectrum. She describes her 14-year-old daughter as higher functioning but having many sensory issues to everything from smells to sounds. Her 11-year-old is mostly nonverbal. Having that firsthand experience, Higgins knows that autism is extremely complex and desires to help other families who may feel they’re alone and not know where to start. 

“We can help you find the resources and navigate the system,” she said. “I had a conversation last week with a family whose daughter is on the spectrum. I gave the mother resources and ideas then followed up with an idea because as parents, we’re so overwhelmed. She said ‘I wish I would have called you sooner’ and she’s glad she found me. I think there’s a lot of families that feel along but need to know there is help. They just need to reach out and ask.”

Webb initially came to the organization for her daughter, now 23, who is on the autism spectrum. 

“She is part of the small group,” Webb said. “She was part of the pilot program they started before I joined the board. It’s fantastic. It’s given her a connection to a group of friends, a meaningful and fun experience (as) there’s such a gap when they age out of school.”

The program Webb says her daughter benefitted from most, through was the summer camp for middle and high school students. 

“When she was younger, she benefitted from that most because it brought together her peers who were maybe going through the same challenges as her and helped her develop friendships,” Webb said. “Some of her closest friends now, they came from camp.”

The camp was not hosted last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely not return this year, either. 

“We’re hopeful next year we can return to the full camp,” Webb said. “We are right now trying to figure out what we can offer in a safe way with COVID. We’re trying to partner with other organizations so it’s sustainable longterm.”

Knowing where to start

ACC currently has 150 active families involved but it’s still trying to get the name out after its name change. It is no longer a support group, but instead offers small groups, counseling sessions and knowledge of resources that can help families with their varying needs.

“I see great things,” Higgins said. “I see us growing. I see us adding on more programming. I want everyone in Johnson County to know who we are and to come to us when there is a question about autism. I want us to help every family. I want as soon as they get a diagnosis to know they can come to us and know we can help them with their journey. It is a journey. Parents once they get that diagnosis, it’s so overwhelming. They need to know that help is out there, you just need to know where to start.”