Anita Boston's son Dylan was 9 years old when he asked her why no one else in his small class at Sts. James and John Parish School in Benwood had autism like he did.
Although on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, Dylan felt isolated. Boston could relate. She had attended some of the autism support groups available at the time, but they were not a good fit for her.
"Talking about all the problems we were having, I would just come home and cry. It was depressing," she said.
Photos by Betsy Bethel
Members of the Wheeling Autism Youth Group, a special needs social group, gather for their monthly meeting at the YWCA Wheeling. Pictured are, front row from left, Nathan Auber, 18, of Wheeling; Payton Wilson, 9, of Wheeling; Andrea Emerick, 21, of Wheeling; Kristina Kull, 17, of Wheeling and Taylor Wilson, 16, of Wheeling. Middle row from left are Alicia Estadt, 17, of St. Clairsville; J. Pritt, 16, of West Liberty; helper Caitlin Reasbeck, 17, of Wheeling; helper Michelle Carr-Charlton, 14, of Martins Ferry; helper Alisha Boston, 13, of Wheeling; Travis Carroll, 13, of Martins Ferry; and Dylan Boston, 16, of Wheeling. Back row from left are Matthew Lichwa, 18, of Wheeling; Hannah Chiplinski, 19, of Wheeling; Evan Voleck, 14, of St. Clairsville; Jamie Tarr, 18, of Wheeling; Brianna Inman, 12, of Wheeling; and Kayleigh Wilson, 19, of Wheeling. Members who were present but not pictured include Bridgette Carroll, 18, of Martins Ferry and David George of Wheeling.
Solving two problems at once, Boston hung fliers around town, seeking families who wanted to get their special needs children together for social events and community service. A few families responded, and the Wheeling Autism Youth Group was formed.
"The parents are happy because we see our kids happy and we have the support and are not alone," Boston said.
Dylan is now 16 and a junior at Bishop Donahue High School. The youth group has become a place where he feels comfortable being himself. "Opening up to them opens me up. I've made a lot of friends here that I still talk to to this day," he said during the group's monthly meeting on Sunday at the YWCA Wheeling.
Nearly 30 tweens, teens and adults with special needs attended Sunday's meeting, at which all were invited to give a presentation to the group on a subject of their choosing. Parents, sibling helpers and other volunteers who attended cheered for the speakers and assisted as needed. Most of the group members have difficulty with social skills so Boston encourages activities that draw them out in front of their peers. Oglebay Institute Towngate Theatre director Tim Thompson regularly provides performing arts instruction.
"Last month they did a skit and the month before that we had a talent show," Boston said. Next month, they are allowed to bring their pets.
Among those presenting on Sunday, one girl shared what she learned about the dangers of smoking through her school's DARE program. Another showed off the trophy she received playing for Wheeling's Miracle League team, which will have its first home game on its new field in May. One boy talked about his involvement in Boy Scouts, and a girl discussed her winning 4-H project detailing her first year as part of that service organization.
Dylan presented his award-winning science project about whether or not autism affects the senses. The audience "oohed" and "aahed" when he told them he received checks for $100 and $50 for his efforts.
After the presentations, a group photo was taken for the newspaper, after which the members enjoyed an ice cream social.
Most of the families who attend have more than one special needs child. The parents help out but also lean on each other. Amy Wilson of Wheeling said that, of her three children, one has Asperger's syndrome, one has autism and one has epilepsy. Anita Boston also has an older son with Asperger's. Some members have mental health diagnoses, such as depression and bipolar disorder.
"Anyone with any kind of social issues, we accept them. These kids have a hard time at school. We do something for them every weekend, whether it's bowling or birthday parties. It makes them feel better for awhile and forget what's going on at school," Boston said.
The group has gone camping, horseback riding at Faith Ranch and frolicking at Fort Rapids indoor water park.
When they go to the movies, the group receives accommodations from both Marquee Cinemas at The Highlands and Carmike Cinemas in St. Clairsville, which turn up the lights and turn down the sound for them. People on the autism spectrum can be sensitive to the dark and loud sounds.
Many are involved in the 4-H club that group member Hannah Chiplinski, now 19, and her mother June Chiplinski started for special needs students in Ohio County in 2009. They attend the county camp at Camp Russel each summer and enter their exhibits in the Ohio County Country Fair. Chiplinski's son, Aaron, is a special needs counselor at the camp.
They even have a prom just for them - a huge undertaking initiated by Wilson and assisted by many volunteers. The event takes place at the Osiris Shrine at Monument Place in Elm Grove. It is free and includes dinner. Wilson said additional volunteers are always welcome.
"We also do a ton of community service, the soup kitchen, providing gloves and hats to the homeless," Wilson said. "We want them to give back."
"So you see, our kids do a lot of stuff, just like all of the other kids," Boston said.
Added Wilson: "A lot of times, people see children like ours and think they can't do that stuff, but they do."
For information, call Boston, 304-233-5955.