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More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder, according to data from the Autism Society.
For parents with children diagnosed, finding affordable and nearby services are important to long-term development, therapy and care. One Williamsburg woman, Julie Cullifer, whose own child is autistic, took matters into her own hands.
She co-founded the nonprofit One Child Center for Autism, on Bulifants Boulevard, to provide such a resource for families living in the Historic Triangle area. The center provides therapy and support groups for families and children with autism and other special needs.
“She’s provided a service for the community that was desperately needed,” said Jessica DeMarco, a single mom of two who needed local services.
Since One Child’s launch in 2013, as many as 50 children now participate weekly in art therapy, social skills groups or individualized speech therapy sessions, Cullifer said. There are also parents’ support groups and activities for children.
“Anything that we can do to help the family out,” Cullifer said. “We want to take care of all members of the family.”
DeMarco needed help when she and her two children, Olivia and Rocco moved to Williamsburg a few years ago from Washington D.C.
Rocco was 2-years-old when he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. DeMarco quickly discovered the nearest support organizations were located in Hampton or Richmond.
DeMarco had learned of One Child and its resources. She particularly appreciated the nonprofit’s emphasis on siblings.
“Especially me being a single mom, all your time is going your special needs child,” she said. “I’ve always had this guilt.”
At One Child, DeMarco’s daughter Olivia, 9, does art therapy with other siblings. It’s a space where they get to talk openly about their own needs and hopes, as well as their feelings about their special needs siblings, she said.
DeMarco added, Olivia has been so inspired by her experience that she’s now volunteering in the special needs class during her playtime at school.
One special monthly event for both siblings and the special needs child is “Kids’ Night”—held at the Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex (WISC) on a Saturday evening each month.
“The whole purpose: to give parents and caregivers a night off while their children are having a night of fun,” Cullifer said.
Local community groups fund that program through grants and scholarships.
This year, One Child received a large grant from Impact 100 to expand Kids’ Night, in collaboration with Child Development Resources.
“We want their association with the special needs child to not be a negative one,” Cullifer said. “That can be hard if most of their income and time is going to one child.”
A growing need for resources
According to the Virginia Dept. of Education website, in Williamsburg-James City County for the 2015-16 school year, 185 students from pre-K through 12th grade qualified for special education services under the autism disability code. In York County, there were 182 students.
These number reflect an increase over the past decade with York County only having 57 such students, and Williamsburg-James City County with 45 student under the same classification during the 2006-2007 school year.
Autism can be an economic burden for families, which is another reason why Cullifer wanted to help.
“No matter where their economic position is, most families struggle financially because of associated costs like special diet, medicine, therapies,” she said. “All of that comes at a cost, no matter how good of a health insurance policy you have.”
To better help her clients, Cullifer has partnered with Results Performance Training, another local group pitching in with fundraising, to host a charity boot camp. In recognition of ‘Autism Awareness Month’ during April, the gym is donating every $10 drop-in fee for boot camp to One Child.
“Results Performance Training was founded by an educator [Detric Smith], so he has a heart for kids,” Cullifer said. “It’s just a fun way for us to raise money, and it gives individuals something fun to do.”
Cullifer believes ‘Autism Awareness Month’ as ‘awareness, action and acceptance month.’
Both DeMarco and Cullifer are excited about the debut this April of the new Sesame Street character, Julia, who has autism.
“I think this is a huge win for the autism community,” Cullifer said. “For the next group of kids entering kindergarten…maybe there will be less fear and more understanding.”