Autism Acceptance Month: Creating Inclusive Spaces For All
Written by Wesley Crosswhite & Laura Brown
This April, we’re recognizing Autism Acceptance Month by celebrating one member of our community for his amazing work at our day camp. Wesley Crosswhite has been a counselor at ‘Z’ Frank Apachi Day in Northbrook for three years. We spoke to Wesley about his experience at our camp and wanted to share his response with our community:
What do you love most about the Apachi community?
What I love most about the Apachi community is that I like how we get involved with other people and do fun activities with our campers every day.
What were some of your favorite memories from being an Apachi counselor?
My favorite memories from when I was at ‘Z’ Frank Apachi was watching the campers and having fun at the group games activities at our trees.
Why did you want to become an Apachi counselor?
I wanted to become an Apachi counselor because I was interested in working with kids and supporting them when they were having a hard time with the changes in the schedule.
What does it mean to you to have autism?
What it means to have autism to me is that I have a hard time communicating to others about what I am saying or just making sure that I know what activities that I am doing with my campers.
As someone with a disability, how did you feel supported by the Apachi staff and community?
I felt supported by the staff and Apachi community by talking about what went well and one thing I could do differently for next time with my campers.
If you could tell the community about autism and how to include people with disabilities what would you tell them?
I would tell them that autism is a disability for people that is having a hard time communicating for what they want and for what they need. Autism is basically for people that have a hard time understanding what everyone is saying. These questions feel most important because they relate to how I really liked my experience and what went well at Apachi when it comes to being a camp counselor.
At Apachi Day Camp and across all JCC Chicago sites, we prioritize creating inclusive spaces for all! In light of Autism Acceptance Month, we’re proud to introduce Laura Brown, our brand-new Inclusion Manager a part of our JCC Chicago Social Services team, who will oversee and continue our agency’s efforts in creating a culture of welcoming and inclusion for people of all abilities at our JCC Chicago Apachi Day Camps.
Laura will work closely with day camp leadership and families to ensure that campers needing additional services and accommodations are provided with support for an amazing summer camp experience. Laura will also evaluate, plan, implement, and oversee new and continuing inclusion initiatives and programs.
Laura has an extensive background working with children who have disabilities. Most recently, she was the Inclusion Specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Resource Center for Autism and Developmental Delays, where she led professional development trainings for parents, teachers, direct support workers, and community organizations, as well as provided resources and referrals to families and providers supporting individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Laura shares more on her experience and the importance of Autism awareness:
I am honored to be a part of JCC Chicago and thrilled to be in this new role for Apachi Day Camps. We are putting our motto, “Inclusion is in our DNA,” into action once again! As a former special education teacher, much of my career has focused on advocating for autistic individuals.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neuro-developmental disorder. Those with ASD process the world differently. Being involved with this community has enriched my life in various ways. My former students have taught me about types of black holes, fascinating facts about the Titanic, and the history of trains. We laughed together over communication breakdowns (When Ms. Brown says, “This will be a piece of cake”, unfortunately, she isn’t serving me cake during math class.) and I’ve learned that we all need breaks once in a while. It’s important to learn about the nuances of ASD and breakdown harmful stereotypes and myths. Autistic individuals can be kind, funny, intelligent, and affectionate.
At all our Apachi Day Camp sites, we are embracing neurodiversity and normalizing diverse needs. We have created a supportive environment to ensure that all campers have a fun camp experience. Setting up this program is due in large part to our partnership with families. They have been open with us about who their child is, how they thrive, what they need, and their hopes for them this summer. The overall message is that they want their child to be accepted.
Autism Acceptance is not just a message for April social media sites. Autism acceptance needs to be implemented into organizations’ structure, programs, and daily practices. I am proud to be a part of the J’s efforts to create a truly inclusive experience at Apachi Day Camps.
*Please note, as a neuro-affirming organization we feel strongly to listen to voices in the communities. Most ASD self-advocates choose identity-first language vs person-first language. We recognize that this is a personal decision and respect each person’s preferences.