News Article Details

Local Autism Society chapter launches social, education programming

Johnson City Press - 3/5/2017

Facing a growing number of diagnoses, the Autism Society of East Tennessee will launch a weekly educational and social program to better serve the local autistic population.

On Saturday, the Johnson City chapter invited autism professionals to begin accumulating a list of programing, such as music therapy, parent support groups and life skills training.

Programs will be offered free of charge at the Beeson Hall Recreation Center at 403 Harrison St. in Johnson City.

"We're renting space from the City of Johnson City to offer more programming to those on the autism spectrum," said Chris Demas, Autism Society of East Tennessee board member and parent of an autistic child.

"We're trying to recruit volunteers to offer a diverse group of programs, including social programs, pre-school play groups and teenage hangout nights."

Volunteers have also expressed interest in offering dance and art classes.

"Anything that families need, we want to be able to offer," said Melissa Keeler, another Autism Society of East Tennessee board member.

Angela Presnell will coordinate the teenager's hangout night.

"I'm wanting to do a teenage group where they can come once a month, maybe play board games and just be able to socialize with other teenagers," Presnell said.

Keeler said the local Autism Society chapter has identified 172 families east of Morristown that have been impacted by autism, and hopes this program will better serve them. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children is diagnosed with autism.

"We are covering the 10 counties of East Tennessee, and all the counties of Southwest Virginia because they don't have (any programming), as well as Western North Carolina," Keeler said.

"Anybody can come. We don't check identification. We're also not turning anyone away who has other disabilities. If a child has Down syndrome, that family can come because we're going to have sensory-friendly events, and a lot of their needs are very similar to (autistic) kids."

Sensory-friendly events include configuring lights and sounds to make autistic children feel as comfortable as possible. Keeler said the program is currently seeking donations of any sensory-friendly objects.

Kandis Burney, executive director of East Tennessee's Autism Society, said Autism Site Knoxville, an autism resource center, already offers similar programming.

"It was kind of like a template for us. All (the founder) did was take the need of the families and fill it. So it was a no-brainer to come out here, find a location and start it all over again," Burney said.

Not only will the programs be adapted for autistic children and teenagers, but organizers are hoping to offer life skills training to autistic adults.

"It will help with daily living tasks, whether that is cooking, cleaning and getting dressed. Just things that are part of normal everyday life," said James Maskew, who will coordinate the life skills program.

The programs will officially begin March 11 with an ice cream social from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Beeson Hall Recreation Center. To learn more about the Autism Society of East Tennessee, visit

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