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Spokane Autism Cooperative 

by Sheri Boggs

At age 8, Sammy Heath is probably

The Inlander's youngest reader. Wearing a white T-shirt with our paper's logo emblazoned on the front, he eagerly flips through the new issue, comparing it every so often with a few of the older ones, balanced on his knee. His mother, Sheri, notes that they usually get their new issue at Tidyman's on the North Side, and that Sammy sometimes reminds her on Wednesday that the new issue is coming out.

"He likes all the pictures of things in Spokane, and now that he's reading, he likes all the references to Spokane," she says. "And right now he's completely fascinated by the Davenport."

Both Sammy and his 12-year-old brother, Evan, are autistic. Described as a neurological disorder that interferes with typical development of reasoning, social interaction and communication skills, autism manifests itself along a wide spectrum from mild to severe. Some kids, like Sammy, become intensely attracted to specific objects or bits of popular culture. It's not uncommon for such kids also to have trouble with eye contact or to have elaborate rituals for daily activities. Autism often lasts for a lifetime. It is an enormously challenging condition, both for sufferers and the people who care for them.

The Spokane Autism Cooperative (SAC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support for parents and other caretakers as well as increasing community awareness on various issues related to what psychologists refer to as Autism Spectrum Disorder. They have 234 people on their mailing list; of those, about 35 come to monthly meetings, held the third Wednesday of each month at St. Luke's.

"These parents are often so isolated -- from their communities, from their social friends, and often from their own immediate families -- because of the challenges of raising a child with autism," says Dawn Sidell, president of SAC. "A lot of the time, we hear that the support group is their only connection to the larger world, so there's often a lot of tears, a lot of venting and a lot of support. To take that away would be to take away the only thing a lot of these parents have."

In addition to providing support and community, SAC also provides much-needed information.

"It's important to let people know what services are in the area. We've made a resource book that's $5, but it's really comprehensive. It has information on diagnosis, symptom management, education, recreational resources -- everything, really," says Sidell, whose son is autistic. "There isn't a system already in place when your child is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. It can be a couple of years before parents would be able to get all this information together if they were doing it on their own."

Sidell is also the director of the Spokane Autism Task Force, a specific branch of SAC that is currently working on establishing a Spokane-based center for autism diagnosis, care, research and treatment. While there are five such centers in the Seattle area, they have waiting lists of one to two years, and they lack the outreach element that a Spokane-based center would provide.

"Our mission is to provide both on-site services and community outreach, which means collaborating with medical, educational and vocational agencies and service providers throughout the region."

While the project is still in the planning stages, Sidell says that the group has specific short-term needs. In addition to those with proven grant-writing experience, the Spokane Autism Task Force is also looking for volunteers who could help with various financial and legal aspects of getting the center off the ground.

"In order for this to work for all of the families, we need participation by all the major players: higher education, hospitals, community agencies, social services," she says. "But I'm excited about it, because I can see lots of mutually beneficial relationships coming out of this in the way of in-kind donations and such. How to get it off the ground and establish those relationships is the hardest part right now."

For more information,

contact SAC at 466-5880.
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