Autism Awareness Month observed

News Staff Writer

More than 60 parents, teachers, city officials and others took part last Saturday, April 1, in Atmore’s second annual Autism Awareness Walk, the focal point of a community observance of Autism Awareness Month (April).
Led by an Atmore Police Department patrol unit, more than 40 people marched from Atmore City Hall to Heritage Park, where a community wide program of support and awareness was held. Several people sat in cars and listened as that program commenced, and a few migrated to the playground across the street from the autism program.
The observance was organized two years ago by Eunice Johnson, a member of Atmore’s city council and the grandmother of three autistic children.
“As a grandmother, I know the fight,” she said. “They [her grandchildren] are very smart kids. When they express themselves, it’s nothing but love. We cannot forget these kids, and that’s why we are fighting to get what resources we need in Escambia County. We have to stand in the gap for them.”
Among those in attendance were Mayor Jim Staff, Mayor Pro Tem Shawn Lassiter and Atmore Public Library Director Hope Lassiter, as well as Amy Mitchell, clinic coordinator for University of South Alabama Regional Autism Network.
Mitchell, who manned an information table with her husband, said she detected a special bond between the members of the community, especially the parents of autistic children, in the effort to bring more programs for such children to Atmore and across Escambia County.
“This is my fifth time in Atmore for various functions,” she said. “There is something incredibly special about your community; it’s just an incredible community, and I applaud y’all so much for coming together. ‘Don’t give up’ is my big charge to you. Keep pushing, keep making officials at the state and national level do the right thing to get the right kind of programs y’all need down here to help your whole community function so beautifully.”
A balloon release was conducted immediately after Mitchell spoke, then several local ministers — including Gary Whitley, Irma J. Wilson and Charles Johnson — and a group of educators also took to the mike.
“We had thought about sitting this one out, but there’s no way we can sit it out,” said Rachel Patterson Elementary School Principal Toya McMillian, who was joined by Rachel Hadley, who teaches self-contained students, and Allison Brooks, a kindergarten teacher. “We play such a vital role in working with children with autism, advocating for them, that we felt like we had to be here. We are the voice for the voiceless. Sometimes it’s like trying to pour from an empty cup. All we can do is look to the hills from which comes our strength. Pray for us, pray for these precious children.”
Asked if she would like to speak, Hadley told the crowd she “can’t talk or I will start crying,” after which she stepped to the microphone and began crying.
Escambia County Middle School Principal Forrest Jones also spoke briefly, telling those in attendance that “[autistic children] have their own unique sets of challenges and their own unique set of blessings. If you take the time to get to know them, they can change your life.”
The program coordinator added that the turnout for Saturday’s event, along with the support the community has provided for autistic children, makes the annual observance more noteworthy.
“This is very special, what we’re doing here today,” Johnson said. “And this is not something that happened just by happening; this is divine.”