The first thing you notice about a gathering of the Downriver Puzzle Parent’s autistic support group is how normal everything seems.
The group held its Spectrum Spectacular art show for children on the autism spectrum at the River’s Edge Gallery in Wyandotte on April 13 and when you walked through the door, you could have been attending an event involving kids and families from any elementary school Downriver.
Parents greeted each other with hugs and smiles, kids ran about hollering and seeking out friends and, after a while, juice mustaches were en vogue after the snack and drink table got a workout.
The artwork was not quite the level usually presented by the gallery, but the artists were no less proud as they showed off their work to happy parents, grandparents and friends. There was art made from puzzle pieces, paintings, drawings, little bird houses and treasure chests and multimedia art. It was a happy and excited throng that filled the upper level of the gallery.
And beaming over this joyous scene was Lisa Vilella, founder of both Mimi’s Mission Charity and the Puzzle Parents group.
The whole “normalcy” thing is part of the package, according to Vilella
“Austic kids are the only kids introduced that way,” she said. “Parents will say, ‘this is Joey, he has autism.” We’ve got to stop that. These kids have autism, that’s not who they are.”
Trying to get kids – and their parents – to recognize that they are not defined by their affliction is one of the goals of Puzzle Parents, Vilella said.
“These kids have autism,” she said. “They have it, they are going to have it. Our goal is to try and help them deal with it. We want to put them in situations where they can learn how to handle themselves.”
The Puzzle Parents actually grew out of Mimi’s Mission. Mimi’s adopts families every Christmas and a couple of years ago, Vilella noticed that about 20 of the adopted families had autsitic children. After inquiring further, she realized that these parents had few options and little support in their struggles with the disorder. And the Downriver Puzzle Parents organization was born.
Their first meeting, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, drew about 20 people. Today, just over two years later, a typical Downriver Puzzle Parents get-together attracts 80 or more.
And the reason for the growth of the program is pretty clear – it’s something that is needed, something that has been missing.
The Downriver Puzzle Parents, which is open to residents of all Downriver communities, meets twice a month at St. Stephen’s and the meetings are something everyone involved looks forward to.
The night, which starts at 6 p.m. and runs until 8, begins with dinner and, of course, desert. Then the kids head downstairs to play games and play with their friends, while the parents stay upstairs for a support group meeting.
At the meetings, parents discuss strategies that they have found work with children on the spectrum, talk about getting together for play dates and they view interactive demonstrations. For some, just the hour or so alone with other adults and a break from watching their child is the highlight of the month.
The break is made possible by Traci Hopper, a teacher in the Airport School District, who brings along some of her high school students to help watch and tutor the kids.
The program is especially good for some of the parents who have a hard time letting go of their children. Because they are overprotective or simply afraid that their child might have an episode in their absence, many parents wear themselves down with constant supervision. Being separated for a short while and seeing the high school students handle the situation is a huge relief to them.
Some have even taken to hiring the high school student to babysit in their homes, so mom or mom and dad can get away for an evening.
Hopper said that was one of the goals she had in mind when she started brings students to the meetings.
“It gives (the students) an understanding of what these kids are like and hopefully the parents will see that they can handle things and use them as babysitters,” she said. “It’s a good way for parents to get a little break.”
For the kids, the meetings are clearly a joy.
“I love coming to the meetings,” said seventh-grader Jacob Beddingfield. “We get to go downstairs and have a lot of fun.”
Beddington, an only child, has bonded with some of the younger kids at the Puzzle Parents and now it is like he has little siblings, said Vilella.
After dinner, the kids simply play or do arts and crafts and the second meeting of every month is the birthday meeting. Cupcakes with candles are handed out and ‘Happy Birthday’ is sung to that month’s birthday boys and girls.
Like Mimi’s Mission, Puzzle Parents is a volunteer organization and Vilella has recruited many, including sisters Lynda Cullen and Robbin Gates. Vilella got Gates to help out and Gates brought her sister, who has sewing skills. The result? Lynda Cullen has sewn more than 120 weighted blankets and lap throws.
Weighted blankets and throws have proven to have a calming effect on people with autism, but they can be expensive, so Cullen did a little research, found out how to make them and began sewing.
“Lynda and Robbin are the sweetest people ever,” said Vilella.
And they, like Hopper and others, are pure volunteers. They do not have autistic children or grandchildren. They just came to help and got hooked.
It’s easy to see why. Puzzle Parents in an amazing group doing amazing things for people who can use the help.
If you have an autistic child and think Puzzle Parents is an organization that is right for you or if you’d just like to help out a wonderful group, check out their Facebook page