Autism support group to hold first meeting

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 17, 2016

By Susan Shinn
For the Salisbury Post

The Rowan County Autism Support Group will have its first meeting this Tuesday, April 19, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 217 S. Church St.

The group has been organized by a 12-member steering committee which includes Susan King, a longtime autism advocate. Susan and her husband, David, are the parents of Patrick, 23, who was diagnosed with autism at age 5.

Susan and Patrick are the authors of “Optimism for Autism,” and both have been frequent speakers about the book, and about autism.

“It’s so nice to be at this point where we can encourage other people,” says Susan, who lives with her family in China Grove. She and David are also the parents of three adult daughters and have a grandson, Landon Morgan, 10 months.

“In the early days it was so hard, and I felt so alone,” she says of coping with autism. “You don’t have to feel so isolated.”

She says of the new group, “Hopefully, this will be a place where people can feel secure and validated. We want to focus on hope, and the positive aspects of this diagnosis.”

The meetings will take place on the third Tuesday of each month, and will feature a 30-minute meet-and-greet session, followed by a speaker. Tuesday’s guest is Dana Rusher, a doctoral student at NCC in special education and child development. Her topic is making things easier at home for a child with autism. In May, the speaker is Sandy Albert, exceptional children’s director for Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

The steering committee worked with Nancy Popkin, resource specialist for the Autism Society of North Carolina, to set up the support group. It’s meant for anyone affected by autism: children, parents, teachers, and students who are studying special education. There will also be information about local resources, including “autism friendly” providers such as doctors, dentists, and even hairstylists.

“Sometimes it’s hard to do normal things with your kids,” Susan points out.

Soon after Patrick’s diagnosis, Susan began attending the society’s conference to learn everything she could about autism.

“When Patrick was first diagnosed, there was no group like this,” Susan says. “This is a way for individuals with autism to have their voices heard, and to offer everyone affected by this diagnosis a voice of hope, understanding, and acceptance.”

Susan notes that 1 in 68 children is on the autism spectrum. Because of improved diagnosis methods, it’s the fastest growing developmental disability.

Susan and Patrick typically speak about three times a month, but sometimes Susan goes solo depending on Patrick’s school commitments. They believe it’s valuable for audiences to hear Patrick’s story from his perspective.

The support group is a family effort. David, owner of King Eye Center in China Grove, is offering a special promotion during April, which is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month. For every patient who makes a $10 donation, David will match that donation, plus offer 50 percent off any frame (excluding Oakley), and the customer will receive a copy of Susan and Patrick’s book. Additionally, patients with no insurance or who are out-of-network will receive a comprehensive eye exam for $85, which includes an Optomap Retinal Scan.

David’s goal is to raise $2,000 for the support group. As of Friday, he was just $800 away from that goal.

“That will give this group a good start,” Susan says. “It’s cool to have the whole family involved, and it’s neat to see Patrick come full circle where he’s giving back now. He gets it with autistic children, and he’s so sensitive with them.”

“When I was growing up, it was difficult for my parents to know what to do, and they had to contact a lot of different places to get help,” Patrick says. “I’m happy now that this group can be a central place to help a lot of other parents. I hope the Rowan County Autism Support Group can help create a better understanding about autism, and I hope it will be a place where people can help each other when someone is struggling. It can be a place where people can come together as a community to help each other out.”

When Patrick was diagnosed with autism, doctors told his parents he was likely mentally retarded. He’s on track to graduate in May magna cum laude with a degree in computer information systems. Doctors also said he’d likely never speak. On Saturday, Patrick presented his senior voice recital.

“Autistic individuals have something so special to offer to the world,” Susan says. “They all have a special gift they can contribute. Part of the process is unearthing that gift and cultivating it. I hope we can do that through this group.”

For more information about the Rowan County Autism Support Group, contact Nancy Popkin at 704-894-9678 or

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.