Carly, a teenage girl sits in a coffee shop with her father and sister, and asks for a cup of coffee. 

“What do you want,” her father asks, holding up two hands to demonstrate the number of choices. “Hot chocolate? Orange Juice?”

 

“No, dad, I want a coffee,” Carly says, her voice barely hiding her frustration. But a cup of hot chocolate is placed in front of her while her father apologizes with a silent, concerned look. Then things start to get confusing. 

The coffee machine used by the barista grinds coffee beans and the sound is excruciatingly loud. A man reading a book at the adjacent table stares uncomfortably at Carly, and Carly’s sister sips her skim soy latte against a backdrop of scary noises building and bouncing from the walls, the machines, and a room full of discordant voices in conversation. The scene, along with four other videos published on mashable.com for Autism Awareness Month last year, becomes traumatic and disjointed, as the neurotypical viewer gets a short example of what it’s like to live inside the head of a person with Autism. 

 

It’s scary, it’s overstimulating, and it’s misunderstood, but the volunteers at the Arc of Northwest Mississippi don’t need an example video to show them how Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects someone—they know already. As a nonprofit that received its charter from the national organization in February of 2014, the Arc of Northwest Mississippi, located in Olive Branch, is an advocacy group for individuals of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and their families. Their goal is multifaceted, including providing education about these issues to the community, services for families and individuals dealing with these challenges, and advocacy at the state level. 

 

“All of us are just teachers and business people pulling these activities together the best we can,” says Rebecca Treadway, who juggles her responsibilities as the choir director and music teacher at Lewisburg Middle School with organizing Arc’s Camp Bold, a summer day camp that runs for four weeks in June and July for children and young adults with developmental disabilities. “Our campers at Camp Bold love their time spent at camp. They look forward to it all year long. Whenever I run into a camper in the community, they are always excited about camp next year, and they enjoy sharing their favorite camp memories.” 

 

In addition to Camp Bold, Arc of Northwest Mississippi hosts other events such as Art to Achieve, a Saturday art program for school-aged students with developmental disabilities completed with guidance from teachers and a local artist. On March 31 of this year, Arc will host Bill Canatta, creator of the ALEC Program, which is designed to train first responders — paramedics, police, and firefighters — to have successful interactions with people with ASD and other intellectual and developmental disabilities. The training will be offered to all local area emergency service providers free of charge at Longview Heights Baptist Church.

 

Beyond the invaluable services provided for a decidedly underserved portion of the population, Arc of Northwest Mississippi has set their sights on political advocacy, as well, and with good reason. There are 3.5 million people in the United States with ASD, and the prevalence of ASD has grown 119.4 percent from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68), according to the latest CDC estimates. Approximately 1 in every 68 children born in the US will be born with ASD, and that figure is currently 10 times higher than it was just 40 years ago. 

 

Without advocacy and support, families who deal with ASD and other developmental and intellectual disabilities on a daily basis fight an uphill battle, especially when the services needed remain scarce — and in some cases, absent — in many parts of the country, including Northwest Mississippi. “Our organization seeks to expand services for people with developmental disabilities in our area of the state,” says Treadway. “We would like to see more day programs for adults with disabilities and more work opportunities for individuals that need a supportive work environment.” 

Causes | February 2015

Bridging the Gap

Olive Branch-based nonprofit, The Arc of Northwest Mississippi, provides advocacy and adventure for the developmentally disabled

 

Story by Tonya Thompson

Click Magazine

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