The sign in front of Northwestern Counseling and Support Services’ main office in St. Albans is seen on Thursday.

ST. ALBANS — In a year that has been unprecedented in so many ways, staff at Northwestern Counseling and Support Services (NCSS) brought autism awareness to the public like never before.

For the past six years, NCSS, a private nonprofit that has served as a healthcare partner in Franklin and Grand Isle counties since 1958, has held a community walk event in recognition of Autism Awareness Month in April. The COVID-19 pandemic scuppered the 2020 event, but for 2021, staff scheduled a series of virtual events via Facebook and Zoom so they could continue to educate and interact with their client families.

“This was another way where we just got creative this year,” said April Brooks, BCBA, LBA, and Applied Behavior Services team leader.

Currently, one in 54 individuals is diagnosed with autism, according to Cheri Keith, BCBA, LBA-VT, and senior behavior consultant for NCSS. Autism can take many forms and impacts individuals in vastly different ways, which requires highly individualized service. For example, one client may be completely non-verbal and require a completely different approach to a client who is overly verbal.

Through the Applied Behavior Services Program, School Based program, and a host of other services, NCSS staff provide one-on-one counseling services for clients and their families, including case management and group work that is individualized to the client.

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” said Meg Gargano, M.A., BCBA, LBA, a team leader for the School Based Autism Program that serves Franklin County schools.

Keith indicated a major part of Autism Awareness Month is building up supports for these individuals to help them enjoy the same aspects of life others may take for granted.

“Everyone’s path to get there may be different, and may be accessed through different avenues, but it’s the balance between the individual work we do and the work we do to create a stronger community that not only acknowledges, but embraces individual differences and takes active, conscious steps to make that happen,” she said.

The week of events kicked off on April 3 with a bag pickup. Staff put together more than 100 bags with autism support resources and materials pertaining to the various virtual events throughout the week so that clients and their families could participate in events. Staff made sure that every client family received a bag, and donated the last 18 bags to a local school teacher for use with their class.

The week was set to culminate with a lantern lighting, but that event has been rescheduled due to a burn ban.

In addition to readalouds by Brooks in the morning, virtual events included training workshops for parents, a puppet show and even a virtual dance party. Over the course of the week, NCSS staff held 20 virtual events.

“We tried to make sure we had a wide variety of activities available throughout the week,” Brooks said, noting that clients can range in age from birth to their 20s, and that autism itself can vary substantially from client to client.

Joseph Halko, director of community relations for NCSS, said the Virtual Autism Week Planning Committee will discuss holding the lantern lighting event toward the end of April. Participating families can decorate their lantern and launch it from home, while a small contingent of NCSS staff launch their lanterns from the Collins Perley Sports Complex.

The committee consists of himself, Brooks, Keith, Gargano; Shawna Shappy, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA; and Executive Coordinator Emily Richards. Halko said NCSS would likely return to holding an awareness walk next year.

But that may not mean the virtual events will disappear.

“That idea of having to be adaptable and having to find creative solutions to things has benefitted us in that we can take those things we tried and were successful and continue them,” said Gargano.

The reach of social media surprised many on the committee. Gargano said a Florida resident with autism found out about the event and tuned in.

“Knowing the power of our social media and how many people we can reach, I think it’s important going forward,” Brooks said.

Shappy added that some events, such as the live science show, could become regular features of the organization’s online presence.

“NCSS is extremely highly regarded throughout the state of Vermont for the autism programming that we make available through the community,” Halko said. “It sounds easy … and then you begin to see everything that’s involved with doing it right, doing it correctly. … These individuals and all their team members do incredible work each and every day for those that they serve.”

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