April is World Autism Awareness Month, a time to listen and share and learn to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism, particularly within our local community. Today, we had the incredible opportunity to connect with Gena Mann, local mom of four and co-founder of Wolf and Friends, a community for special needs parents to find connection, inspiration and expert recommendations. Gena is a rockstar mom, human, and educator, and she is helping people everyday better understand the world around us. Thank you Gena; we are eternally grateful.
What is it like to have 2 sons with autism? I have two sons with autism who are 15 months apart and they truly couldn’t be more different from one another. When you hear that autism is a spectrum, imagine two brothers at opposite ends of that spectrum. One has struggled since birth to learn everything- how to speak a handful of words, soothe himself, understand basic safety (like waiting at a red light). He has a one to one para with him at all times in school, and a program that includes very modified academics as well as life skills. The other drives himself to private school every day, taught himself Spanish, has plans for a teen tour this summer, and spends much of his time playing guitar or scrolling Instagram like a typical 17 year old. I couldn’t be more proud or in awe of either of them; they have both persevered past enormous obstacles to get to where they are today and continue to push for their fullest potential. I also have two typical daughters, and they are pretty awesome too:)
How did covid impact your family ? I imagine it was much harder to explain to your kids and much harder for you since you could not escape and they could not have access their support resources, therapies, etc? When the world shut down last March, my older son had a very, very hard time….like life-shattering hard. Living in such a privileged community, even with these challenges, we know our struggle still didn’t compare to what so many others have endured. My husband and I could both easily work from home, we had help with us, etc….but for my son Jasper, the complete annihilation of his routine, combined with his total inability to access “zoom school” left us with very long days to fill and his repeated requests to return to school and a schedule that made sense to him. He had no granular understanding of what was happening in the world. He was truly only capable of asking to go back to a structure he could rely on. Nothing about Covid has been reliable for anyone. It was devastating and it went on until summer when he was able to go to the Wilton YMCA for camp which provided a bit of normalcy. But as school returned and the numbers rose, we had to do what so many special needs (and typical) families did: deal. There are so many layers to how Covid impacts autistic individuals and their families. Some of it is the hydroplaning feeling of life without structure that destabilizes everything, but some of it is that the standard issue sense of isolation most special needs families face already quickly becomes total isolation. We were fortunate to be able to escape for a few months this winter, but it has for sure been a long year…
Is this community supportive of children with differences? What more can the community do? What can people do? What can parents teach young children? I can only really answer this based on my experience with my children who are now 17 and 18. I know parents with kids of different ages will feel very differently on this subject. Compared to many other places, those of us that live in Westport and Weston are incredibly fortunate to have schools and communities that try to be supportive of all kinds of kids. My younger son who is an avid guitar player participated in bands at School of Rock for many years which always felt inclusive of kids with any sort of differences. Weston also has an incredible Unified Sports Program where neuro-typical teens in the high school buddy up with children with special needs to play after school sports once per week. It has provided an amazing opportunity for Jasper to play sports when typical team sports would never have been an option for him.
That said, there is always work to be done as far as inclusion and programming for children and young adults with autism. Over the past several years, many places in the community have come out in support of both autism awareness and acceptance and have personally been incredibly kind to my family. When I call and say, “Hey, can Jasper and his para come work at your establishment?”, the answer has frequently been “Yes!” After years of hard work in school gaining the skills to go out in the community, Jasper now has work opportunities at several different local sites; he works at Good Hill Haven Farm taking inventory and feeding animals, the Weston Food Pantry shopping and stocking shelves, at Groove (pre-pandemic) helping with shopping bags and candy consumption:) as well as volunteer jobs at the Beardsley Zoo and In Sports in Trumbull. I’m really looking forward to him pursuing employment at The Porch at Christies when he is old enough. It is so important to us that he finds meaningful work that he enjoys and feels proud of even if he can’t work independently.
As for what parents can do, that’s easy, and applies to teaching acceptance and kindness toward all people regardless of their differences. With the prevalence of autism where it is (about 1 in 54 kids) most kids in elementary school will probably meet a child with autism. Take the time to get to know these kids, include them and even reach out to their parents because—in all likelihood—special needs parents could use It, and their kids may not have the skills to know how to navigate a playdate request. They are interesting and kind and want to have friendships and connections even if they are unable to express it. The world is full of people who are different from you, what better time to start practicing embracing people’s unique abilities and ways than as a young child? Normalize the differences. My daughters have seen all kinds of moments in our house—from breathless chaos to triumphant milestones; nothing phases them and I know they will go on to be empathetic, inclusive and curious adults as a result.
Gena Mann is the cofounder of https://www.wolfandfriends.com, the community for special needs parents to find connection, inspiration and expert recommendations