Local Organization Lights It Up Blue All Year Long for Autism Acceptance
April is observed as Autism Acceptance Month, but for families of children with autism, the fight for acceptance doesn’t end in May. Organizations keep the spirit of the month alive all year at a local level with the help of passionate people, especially those who have personally lived through the struggles and triumphs of raising a child on the autism spectrum at a time where the public was far from understanding, let alone the accepting, of autistic children.
Jersey City-based Whole Spectrum Autism Foundation was started by founder Sherry Singh seven years ago as Colors of Autism in Hudson County and changed two years ago as it became a non-profit and expanded its mission to serve everyone nationwide on the autism spectrum. Whole Spectrum champions autism acceptance and inclusion by facilitating community engagement and serving as a voice for families whose loved ones are on the spectrum. Founding this organization comes from a personal place for Singh, whose son Ravi, falls on a more severe end of the autism spectrum. Now 35 years old, he did not grow up with the same level of awareness of autism as there is today, which led to struggles for the Singh family that Sherry hopes no one else will have to experience.
“For me and millions of other parents, our children fall into an age bracket that never had any help. Our kids are the ones that lacked education, services, and therapy,” said Singh. “I went through a lot of difficult situations with my own son personally. I started Whole Spectrum to not only get help for those families, but to help every other family out there.”
Building a Support System From Scratch
This help begins with community. Singh saw at the time that there weren’t enough activities out there for families with autistic loved ones to get together, especially in Hudson County, and build a support system. Using her connections as a board member of the Historic Downtown Special Improvement District (HDSID), Singh reached out to businesses to host dinners and activities for families with autistic loved ones in Jersey City just to get families together and create the support system her family lacked for almost 30 years.
“Even if it’s for a short time, just seeing the smiles and happiness of families getting two hours of breathing space among people who understand us and won’t judge us for who we are is amazing,” said Singh. “Starting Whole Spectrum has given me the strength from meeting other families and realizing there are so many others that are not able to raise their voices or have someone that will stand by them. We’re all taking the same steps.”
Before COVID, bringing events like pizza parties and bowling to the table alone made such a big impact that more than a hundred local families were attending and getting in contact with Singh to thank her for giving them an opportunity to get out and meet other families. Post COVID, families are eager to get together again, with a bowling event at the end of April having received about 150 RSVPs.
Education, Awareness, Acceptance
Along with organizing get-togethers for families, Singh teamed up with Rachel Seig, Executive Director of HDSID who Singh affectionately calls her “secret angel in disguise,” to bring her idea of lighting up the Newark Ave Pedestrian Plaza blue for April in honor of Autism Awareness Month to life. Together, they reached out to Downtown businesses with free blue Christmas lights, asking them to hang them in the window to signify their support, which they did and still do seven years later, with over 20 businesses participating in this past April, including:
Choc O Pain French Bakery and Café – JC Downtown
Grace O’Malley’s Whiskey Chapel
There was also a dedicated flag raising at City Hall on April 1 to launch the start of Autism Acceptance Month.
However, as Singh worked with businesses and talked over the years to families who still didn’t know about resources available to them or shared stories of struggle and frustration with lack of services, it became clear to her that much more needs to be done with educating the public not just about awareness but with real understanding.
“The big part we are launching now is education,” said Singh. “Due to personal experience and receiving phone calls from hundreds of families who feel like they are suffocating and can’t find anyone to work with their kids, we’re finding a lack of people trained in working with people on the severe end of the spectrum. I took it upon myself to train, and now, I want to train others.”
The “others” Singh wants to train are people like community workers, business owners, police officers, firefighters, and EMS, who are not often taught how to read the body language, speech, or behaviors of an autistic person that could indicate a problem or escalate a situation that could have been mediated with more education. Autism is different for every person, but there are ways to train to better handle and avoid issues that Singh wants to see adapted at a state level, to start. With education comes awareness, and with awareness, comes understanding of how to approach situations the correct way.
“We’ve been thrown out of an airplane and restaurants, gotten into fights in the grocery store, and received tickets from a police officer who didn’t know anything about autism,” said Singh. “I’m tired of people being unaware of autism. I don’t want people staring at my family. My main goal now is to educate. If I have to fight for acceptance, I will. Yes, be aware of us, but while you’re being aware, accept us.”
It Starts with a Smile
As hard as raising her son without the resources and outside support system of today was, Singh always goes back to the little moments that bring her joy and fuel her passion for striving for acceptance for her family and others.
“Something I say to everyone is, ‘A smile can save a life,’ said Singh. “There was a point in my life where I gave up, and I didn’t want to go on anymore. My son saved my life … I was in tears after a particularly bad meltdown and I just broke down. But when I looked at my son, he had fallen asleep with a smile on his face. He taught me what a difference a smile could make, and that was all I needed.”
To support Whole Spectrum Autism, consider buying a ticket to or sponsor a family for the 7th Annual Autism Acceptance Gala on September 8th, 2022. The Gala will be held from 6-10pm on the Pedestrian Mall on Newark Ave. Come out and support Autism Acceptance with a night filled with good company, great food, drinks, and raffle prizes to help build acceptance and support for people on the autism spectrum and their families. Proceeds benefit Whole Spectrum Autism.
For educational resources, community events, and more, visit www.wholespectrumautism.org and follow on social media @whole_spectrum_autism.