For hundreds of Minnesotans, the high point of the annual Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month this year came on April 29 at an intergenerational get-together.
The upbeat open house, held at the Minnesota Autism Center headquarters in Eden Prairie, featured cupcakes, balloons, and a food truck lunch, all geared at families with children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Several hundred of them gathered for the event on Saturday, which also included tours of the center, the opportunity to meet staff, and the latest information on effective guidance and education for people on the spectrum.
“It’s been absolutely awesome,” said Jeff Nichols, CEO of the Minnesota Autism Center. “We weren’t sure what to expect but we had a great turnout from the local community.”
Both the activities and the celebratory atmosphere of the event were meant to make families feel comfortable. “Today’s event felt very welcoming, very inclusive,” said Kelly Kausel, mother of a child on the autism spectrum. “No matter where you came from or your background, you walked in here and you felt like people wanted you to be here.”
The highlight of the day for many in attendance was when the guests got to meet the host of the event, author, and media personality Sheletta Brundidge, sometimes known as “Minnesota’s Autism Mom.” Brundidge gave away copies of three children’s picture books that she’s written.
Her books, each based on one of her three children diagnosed with ASD, provide much-needed representation.
Brundidge wrote her first book, “Cameron Goes to School,” when her own daughter Cameron was in kindergarten and could not find a book about a little girl like her. Brundidge sought the help of a librarian in finding such a story, but the librarian explained the sad truth that children of color with special needs have been ignored by the publishing industry.
Brundidge went on to publish “Daniel Finds his Voice,” about the way her non-verbal youngest son used music as a breakthrough in communication. She followed up with “Brandon Spots His Sign,” a story that tells about how her son found confidence by interpreting ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ signs as encouragement aimed at him.
Cameron, Daniel, and Brandon Brundidge accompanied their mother in autographing the books that were given to families in attendance.
“A few years ago, these babies were non-verbal and now they are saying hello to folks and talking to other kids,” Brundidge said. “This is what therapy and teachers, and God can do.”
Brundidge’s WCCO colleague Chad Hartman came by with his son Quinton, 22, who is on the autism spectrum and whom Hartman called his “hero.”
“A lot of people don’t realize how many people there are around the country and around the globe who are on the spectrum,” Hartman said. “My friend Sheletta may be the most determined person I have ever met. Her total thrust is to try to help. If Sheletta’s a part of something, then I want to be part of it.”
For Brundidge as well as other parents and grandparents, the open house represented a chance to experience an event designed for people with ASD, rather than a more typical event where they are expected to adapt.
“So often our kids are always the last to get on the bus, go on the playground, to go on the field trips,” Brundidge said. “Today at the Minnesota Autism Center, we were first.”