According to the National Autism Association, one in 68 children is affected by autism. Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls.
Margaret and Erik Neelsen co-founded the nonprofit organization Autism After 18 in May 2016 to help young adults with autism to function independently.
Their son, Ryan, was diagnosed with autism in 2002 when he was 3 years old. During his senior year in high school, the Neelsens decided they needed to do something to help him transition to adulthood.
“When school ends, what’s next for Ryan? Margaret Neelsen said. “He had always been so social.”
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With the help of many friends, family and volunteers, they started Autism After 18 with the mission “Unlocking life’s potential for young adults with autism.”
A five-member Board of Directors, several committee members and many volunteers support the cause through awareness, fundraising and facilitating programs. It’s 100 percnet volunteer.
Heather Halpin is one of the volunteers who serves on the board as treasurer. She was neighbor to the Neelsens. A conversation in the backyard was the impetus to her participation in Autism After 18. She attends as many events as possible and makes an effort to be at the fundraising events.
“She recognized there was a need for these kids after high school. I have two nephews with autism,” Halpin said. “This first year has really been about establishing ourselves. It’s been a rewarding experience.”
The first fundraising event was held on Sept. 11 with five young adults participating in “Almost Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day” at Tyber Creek Irish Pub in Charlotte’s Southend. People purchased tickets for the event that included Irish music and dancing provided by Walsh Kelley School of Irish Dance. Margaret Neelsen is a native of Dublin, Ireland.
“If someone had told me where we would be today, I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” Neelsen said. “It’s been amazing. It’s really taken off. So many people are reaching out.”
They rely on donations and fundraisers. “The community,” Neelsen said, “I just can’t believe the generosity of people.” This summer Autism After 18 participated in SummerSHARE run by SHARECharlotte and sponsored by Bank of America and Mecklenburg County. They made a wish list and donations have been pouring in.
Practically every month, there is a social or fundraising event. The numbers have grown to 35 – 40 participants. Neelsen said all events are free for the families.
July was a busy month. Activities have included zip lining and obstacle courses at Kinetic Heights, an indoor activity center in Charlotte, where Neelsen said the Ninja Wall is a confidence builder. A fundraiser was held at Three Spirits Brewery near Pineville, where $1 per pint was donated to Autism After 18. A “Lemonaid” stand was held at the Carolina Fire Department in south Charlotte.
An eight-week cooking class began in June at the Morrison Y for young adults to learn fine motor skills and basic cooking techniques, such as how to hold a knife. Students recently toured a Ballantyne grocery store and shopped for the ingredients they would need.
“Chefs in Training” will run through August with eight students in a beginner class and another advanced class of 10. Classes are taught by Traci Langton, an occupational therapist with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, who is assisted by Morrison Y Chef Mallory Choate and Lacey Darby, a volunteer. The advanced cooking group took the first round of beginner classes, so are on a second round of classes. At the conclusion of the advanced classes, the students will prepare a meal for their families.
“There’s lots of awareness. We want to raise acceptance for adults with autism,” Neelsen said. “A lot of them are very gifted and have many talents.”
Other organizations offering services in the area include:
▪ Autism Services of Mecklenburg County provides residential and support services for adults with autism or Traumatic Brain Injury.
▪ The N.C. Autism Society provides support and resources throughout the state with autism support specialists in six offices.
▪ Ignite is a social program with workshops in Davidson for adults with high-functioning autism.
▪ Autism Speaks raises awareness, provides support and is involved in autism research.
The nonprofit has passed its one year anniversary and Neelsen sees signs of success.
“I go out and see the adults exchanging phone numbers and friendships being formed,” Neelsen said. “Everybody needs a friend.”
Kim Becknell Williams is a freelance writer.
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