Founded in 2002, by Jacquie Mace and a number of community professionals, Autism McLean is an all-volunteer grass-roots organization. The program emerged from families impacted by autism who found one another out of a shared need to build local supports. I spoke with Chuck Hartseil, a board member and a founding member of Autism McLean, about their organization and their current work with MCLP.
A more recent outgrowth of the organization is their Autism Friendly Community (AFC) initiative, an outreach to partner with local government, businesses, other agencies providing services, and the larger community. The AFC white paper outlines local government planning and develops a recognition program for local businesses and institutions to identify them as autism friendly. AFC also advocates for employment opportunities for people on the spectrum. In 2019, Autism McLean led a series of public discussions on autism-focused housing needs. Chuck defines an AFC as a place that has awareness of those with specific needs in the community, recognizes the abilities of those individuals, and addresses their needs. Some of these needs, for example, are inclusive education, housing, and employment.
Autism McLean sponsors social groups and activities – such as sports, summer camps, holiday gatherings and community outings — for individuals and families on the autism spectrum. The organization has developed a “sensory bag” which includes tools to help mitigate sensory environments that can easily overwhelm individuals on the spectrum. The bags will be given to local organizations including libraries, museums, first responders (providing a kit to every ambulance service in the county) and businesses. Autism McLean also works closely with various departments at Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University.
One of MCLP’s project teams will be working on the Autism Friendly project to help create a concrete definition of what an Autism Friendly community would look like and to then have McLean County proclaimed as the first Autism Friendly community by the governor’s office. They are also working to create an online network for parents of children with autism or other special needs to be able to recommend each other to local businesses that provided good experiences for their children.
We look forward to seeing the impact that Autism McLean will continue to have in our community.