When people think of organizations helping individuals with autism there are a couple of big names that jump to mind. Autism Speaks is probably the first one. Maybe the Autism Society is on the radar. But for every one of these big organizations, there are many smaller groups working diligently to help people in their community.
Pathfinders for Autism is one such organization. Based in Maryland, this group was established way back in February 2000, a full five years before Autism Speaks. A group of parents of children with autism, frustrated by the lack of information and guidance available from physicians and educators, partnered with Dr. Rebecca Landa of the Kennedy Krieger Institute to create Pathfinders.
“Our primary goal was to find a path for our children through two key elements: researching resources to create a repository of information and hiring a caring professional who would be available to answer questions personally,” says founding board member Becky Galli. “We felt strongly that parents of children with autism needed someone to talk to, not just a packet of information or a website link.”
This goal has led to the creation of a service-oriented group that operates a help line as well as a walk-in center where people can get free advice and resources. Mostly focused on Maryland resources and services, Pathfinders gets calls from all over the state, the country, and sometimes the world. They are able to assist people in Maryland and the DC metro area, but they refer callers from outside the area to national or local-to-the-caller resource centers.
Most of Pathfinders’ assistance is done via email or phone call, responding to requests for help with everything from funding for therapies and basic necessities to information about special education and employment support. The walk-in resource center offers a lending library and specialized computer software as well as a resource exchange, where families donate items and equipment they no longer need.
In addition, Pathfinders’ website offers a provider search function, along with a wealth of information accessed by 22,000 visitors monthly. The group also offers several workshop series covering issues ranging from transitions, sexuality, employment, finances, co-morbidity, executive function and more. They also feature sessions targeted to adults with autism, a demographic left out of a conversation all too often focused solely on children.
Through outreach to local businesses, civic groups, and schools, Pathfinders promotes autism awareness by sending staff or volunteers to schools and by working with child care associations. School visits include talks about autism and other differences, as well as experiential sensory and social exercises designed to give kids an idea of how their peers with autism may experience life.
They have also partnered with the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Parents’ Place of Maryland to provide developmental screening trainings to local pediatricians. Pathfinders has been able to provide pediatricians with AAP Autism Tool Kits as well as information on local resources they can share with their clients.
From that original frustration felt by the founders of Pathfinders for Autism has come a vibrant organization working to help parents of children with autism, individuals with autism, and the general public to bring them autism services, awareness, and respect.
“It is important when we encounter anyone with a disability or difference that we always presume intellect,” says Pathfinders’ executive director, Rebecca Rienzi. “All individuals with autism are just that, an individual with likes, dislikes, personality, and thoughts of their own, and should be treated as such.”
Pathfinders is supported by fundraising events, grassroots-driven fundraisers, corporate sponsors, private donations, and foundation grants. Their biennial Celebrity Fashion Show takes place on November 6.
To contact Pathfinders for Autism’s help line, call 866-806-8400 or 443-330-5341. You can also email the resource center at info@pathfindersforautism. The walk-in center is located at 303 International Circle, Suite 110, in Hunt Valley, Maryland. They are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and by appointment.