If Crystal Matthews could have one wish granted, it would be for people to understand that a child's public meltdown isn't always a behavioral problem.
"People can't tell if someone has autism," she said. "It would be nice if there was a way to tell people that sometimes they are having a meltdown over things they can't control."
Matthews' 10-year-old son Jaxson was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. The number of Americans with autism is estimated to be more than 3.5 million.
Children typically start showing signs of autism between 2 and 3, said Katie Dihrkop, positive behavior support coordinator for Growing Minds Learning Center's Henderson clinic, as well as 10 others in Kentucky.
Some of the more common signs of autism include communication delays or regression, repetitive behaviors, lack of eye contact and challenges with social skills, said Dihrkop.
Jaxson showed signs of high intelligence, even as a small child. He could easily memorize facts and carry on detailed conversations about television shows and movies as a toddler.
He also liked things very orderly. At age 3, Jaxson would line up his toys and have meltdowns if things didn't go to plan.
"If I told him we were going to Walmart, and we stopped somewhere else first he would get very upset," she said.
Matthews joined Experiencing Autism Together not long after Jaxson was diagnosed. Dawn Wheeler founded the nonprofit about a decade ago as a support group for Henderson-area families with autistic children.
"It's amazing because anytime you have any situation going on you can ask them a question," Matthews said. "One person might not have the answer, but someone else might."
Since Henderson schools are on spring break this week, the Matthews family left Wednesday to go to the indoor water park Big Splash Adventure in French Lick, Indiana. Jaxon wanted to go there and his wish was granted through Experiencing Autism Together.
The nonprofit is paying for their hotel room and putting any leftover money for the trip on a gas card they can use. The nonprofit uses money raised through its annual Walk for Autism to grant family wishes.
The group's seventh annual Walk for Autism begins at 9 a.m. April 29 in Audubon Mill Park along the Henderson Riverfront. The walk will take place rain or shine.
The walk is one of several events planned for Autism Awareness Month, which is recognized nationally in April.
Despite the April showers last year, people who attended the walk just popped out their umbrellas and continued having a good time, said Tammy Baird, a board member for Experiencing Autism Together and a parent of an autistic daughter.
"It's just a really feel-good day and a really good thing for anybody to be part of and witness," said Baird.
About 300 people attend the walk every year, helping raise as much as $20,000. Baird said Experiencing Autism Together has good business sponsor support and the families in the group rally to help raise money.
It's a Christian group that reaches out to those experiencing autism by providing informative support meetings, monthly family outings, family wishes and by raising money to provide iPads to children with autism.
Proceeds from the walk will go to Experiencing Autism Together support group in Henderson to help fund the monthly family outings and the granting of family wishes. The money will also be used to help other nonprofits that help autistic people.
Autism participants will receive a free T-shirt. Other participants may purchase shirts for $12. Shirts will be sold the day of the walk and from 9 a.m. to noon April 15 at the Henderson Walmart.
All money will be collected at registration or can be mailed to 3030 Field Stone Drive, Henderson, Ky, 42420.
The top pledge collectors will receive, on Visa prepaid cards, $500 for first place, $300 for second place and $200 for third place. Individuals as well as those who choose to collect as a team are eligible to win.
"Even if you don't have any affiliation with autism, I feel like anybody can benefit by coming," Baird said. "It's so moving to see the families and, in particular, the person with autism having fun. It's a fun event."
Growing Minds Learning Center in Henderson also has an event planned later this month for people to learn more about autism. People can attend the Autism Awareness Open House from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4:40 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on April 28 at the Growing Minds clinic located at 1040 Market St.
Attendees can tour the Growing Minds clinic, learn more about services and community involvement, and ask any questions they may have. There will also be entertainment for parents and children.
Growing Minds and its sister company, Community Living in Kentucky, serve approximately 50 clients in the Henderson/Owensboro area and more than 670 clients statewide. Growing Minds provides therapy to children as early as 20 months.
There are many misconceptions about autism, Dihrkop said.
"It is important people understand autism is a spectrum disorder and each individual who is diagnosed will present differently and have different needs," she said.
That's why individualized treatment, along with early intervention, can help children reach their full potential.
Growing Minds uses the principles and procedures of Applied Behavior Analysis therapy to teach language, social, self-help, academic, daily living and life skills.
ABA therapy fosters basic skills such as looking, listening and imitating as well as complex skills such as reading, conversing and understanding another person’s perspective, Dihrkop said.
"It also helps reduce behaviors that make it difficult for students to learn," she said. "The teaching technique used in ABA therapy involves breaking down a desired behavior into smaller, teachable parts and providing a child with positive reinforcement when he or she engages in the desired, appropriate behavior."
Here's a schedule for upcoming autism events:
▪ Autism Evansville Walk & 5K at the Warrick County 4H Center, 133 East Degonia Road, Boonville, Ind. Events will take place between 9 a.m. and noon Saturday. People may register as an individual or as a team. For more information, or to register for the race, visit runsignup.com/Race/IN/Boonville/AutismEvansvilleWalk5K.
▪ Autism Evansville and Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center have partnered to bring a free support group to parents, grandparents and caregivers of children on the autism spectrum. The Autism Parent/Caregiver Support group will meet from 6 to 7:15 p.m. April 13 at the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center, 3701 Bellmeade Ave. in Evansville. Stephanie Cueche and Beth Embry from Within Sight will speak about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
▪ The 2017 Rethinking Autism Conference will be held from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on April 20-21 at St. Mary's Medical Center's Manor Auditorium in Evansville. Speakers will include Matthew Hayes, self-advocate and the inspiration behind the PBS documentary, "My Voice;" Tracy Thresher, autistic self-advocate and star of the film, "Wretches & Jabbers;" Cacey DePriest, neurologic music therapist and founder of Optimal Rhythms/ACCESS Academy; and Christine King, occupational therapy assistant at Project CHILLD in Massachusetts. Visit autism.optimalrhythms.org/ to register, see the full schedule or for more information.
▪ Family Fun Night is a service for families raising a child on the autism spectrum or Down Syndrome. Volunteers oversee activities such as rock wall climbing, mini parachute, Legos, face painting, dancing, games, etc. The free event will be held at 6 to 8 p.m. April 21 at Plaza Park School, 7301 Lincoln Ave. in Evansville. Register at the door. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or call 812-202-9405.
▪ Growing Minds Learning Center in Henderson is hosting an Autism Awareness Open House from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on April 28. This event is open to all community members who are interested in learning more about autism. Attendees can tour the Growing Minds clinic, learn more about services and community involvement and ask any questions they may have.The clinic is located at 1040 Market St. in Henderson.
▪ The annual Henderson Walk for Autism will begin at 9 a.m. April 29 in Audubon Mill Park along the Henderson Riverfront. For more information, contact Hendersonwalkforautism@hotmail.com.