HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - April is National Autism Awareness Month, but a nonprofit in Hattiesburg is advocating for individuals with autism year-round.
The Arc of Southeast Mississippi has been dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities in the Hattiesburg area for more than seven decades.
“We’re devoted to individuals with disabilities and their families,” said Cindy Pennington, the executive director of the Arc. “Our biggest goal is to actively support their full inclusion in our community and make sure that they are participating in the things that all other people are.”
Pennington said the organization takes pride in creating a space for their clients to feel included. Their facility is equipped with various spaces for clients to have real-world experiences. It includes a movie theater, a gym, a daycare, a pottery building and a new sensory building.
But, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away some of their programs.
“Prior to COVID, we had many, many programs,” Pennington said. “We had respite programs, which were the weekends where we gave parents a break and we give individuals a chance to be with their peers. After school childcare when they leave the school, they are able to come here. We have the adult program, that’s Monday though Friday, and we have several individuals with autism here as well.”
Joseph Garretson is one of the adults in the program. Joseph was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and bipolar disorder at 10 years old. He is now 32. He started attending Arc two years ago and says he met his girlfriend there. He also mentioned how he wants to help people like him.
“There’s different treatments for different levels,” Garretson said. “I take medicine for mine, but I try to help in whatever way I can because I understand, and I can speak, but I feel like my role in it is to help other people.”
After years of working with people who have disabilities, Pennington says there is one big takeaway she has learned.
“One thing that I’ve always learned that has stuck with me as a nurse, as a special educator, is that I heard this years ago, once you’ve seen one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism,” Pennington said.
To learn more about Arc and how they can help you, head to Hattiesburgarc.com.