The Island Autism Group is building momentum this summer before the school year begins. The organization was the charity recipient for the Oak Bluffs Bluewater Classic fishing tournament held over the weekend, and hosted its eighth annual tea at the Dr. Daniel Fisher House in Edgartown on Wednesday. This summer's tea was dedicated to Dorothy Henry, a longtime friend of IAG who supported the therapeutic horseback riding program. Preliminary numbers indicate the fishing tournament brought in more than $5,000 for the group, a combination of the 10 per cent donated from registrations, plus T-shirt sales and a raffle. Early numbers from the tea show approximately $18,000 raised. Ms. DeVane said a number of community businesses contributed significant items for the tea.
The group’s president Kate DeVane said there are approximately 45 school-age students with autism on the Vineyard, according to numbers from the superintendent’s office a couple of years ago. Based on statistics released in March of 2014, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), estimates one in 68 children have been identified as having autism — one in 42 boys, and one in 189 girls.
The Island Autism Group (IAG) raises funds to provide extracurricular services for students with autism, from drumming to therapeutic horseback riding to iPads and summer camp scholarships. Now in its eighth year, Ms. DeVane said the organization has evolved over the years and will continue to do so.
“We are constantly expanding, and as we learn more about autism we’re becoming more aware that we need to figure out what will happen to these kids when they get older,” Ms. DeVane said.
The IAG was founded by two mothers who had children with autism in the Project Headway preschool program. School budgets do not always have the means to offer assistance outside the classroom besides the usual occupational, physical, speech and other typical therapies.
Over the years, IAG has provided squeeze machines, iPads, special wheels for bicycles, cameras and video equipment and even yoga classes for students. If a therapist or educator feels a student would benefit from specific technology, equipment or therapy, they can fill out a request from the IAG and then the board determines whether it is something that can be awarded.
The IAG became a 501c3 non-profit in 2011 with a mission to enhance the lives of people in the community with autism.
Kim Leaird has twin boys who celebrate their 10th birthday in a couple of weeks. Her son John has benefitted from the IAG in several ways. Most important to him now, his mother said, is that he has an iPad with video capabilities thanks to the IAG. This means he can work on the videos he loves to create, which star some familiar Sesame Street characters.
“He’s recently started filming these movies,” Ms. Leaird said. “First he used my telephone to video tape, now he can use his iPad. This really helps him to express himself and to be creative.”
The IAG was one of the first places to which Ms. Leaird reached out when she moved to the Vineyard from Maryland almost two years ago. She said she wanted to connect with other parents and share ideas and support. The IAG website offers resources for parents and caregivers. Its board of directors are either parents of a child with autism, or community members who have seen the impact autism has on families and the community.
“Before I had Mark, I didn’t know anything about autism,” Ms. DeVane said, referring to her son. “That was 10 years ago. As I went off-Island for doctor’s appointments and therapist visits I met other parents and began to realize the scope of this.”
She explained that the ultimate goal of the IAG is to create a campus-type center where adults with autism could live and work.
“A sort of community within a community,” Ms. DeVane said. “I’m absolutely horrified at the idea of sending my kid away, whether he’s 12 or 24, but we’re currently not set up on the Island for these kids when they grow into adults. We’d like to have a self-sustaining organization here where we could maybe work with restaurants in food service, maybe work with farmers, growing vegetables on the property. We could provide jobs, work with the community. The Island is so welcoming to people who are different. Of course, that means a lot of fundraising.”
The IAG typically raises approximately $30,000 or so a year to help offset costs for students with autism. Their fundraising events this summer will produce benefits in the fall when the school year begins. Fulfilling the rest of the dream will take some more work, Ms. DeVane said.
Anyone interested in more information can visit the group’s website, islandautismgroupinc.com, or call Ms. DeVane at 508-939-0668. Donations may be sent to IAG, P.O. Box 2786, Edgartown, MA 02539.