FORT BLISS, TX, UNITED STATES
FORT BLISS, Texas - The parents and children made their way into The Grand Theatre at Freedom Crossing, popcorn and sodas in hand. This movie is a little bit different, however. After the previews play, the lights don’t dim. As the movie plays, there is no thunderous bass and loud sound. Instead, the volume is set at a normal level.
As the movie continues, children get out of their seats and walk around the theater. Some make noises. Others clap and cheer. Yet nobody in the theater turns to the parents and tells them to be quiet. Nobody sends menacing glares toward the parents. Instead, this behavior is allowed.
The movie was playing on behalf of the Fort Bliss Autism and Special Needs Support Group. Because of the normal volume and light levels, they are considered sensory-child friendly. The movies also go against the current 3-D trend, being shown only in 2-D.
The support group meets the last Thursday of every month and is open to all parents at Fort Bliss who have children on the autism spectrum or have special needs such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, attention deficit disorder or other special needs.
“We are a parent support group exclusive to the military community,” said Jennifer Neal, the support group leader. “We focus on the emotional need of the parents.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. ASDs affect each person in different ways and can range from very mild to severe.
Children who are autistic (on the spectrum) are likely to exhibit similar traits, but they can vary widely in the manifestation of their condition. One child may rarely speak and have difficulty learning how to read and write. Another child can be high functioning – enough so that he can attend regular classes in school. Yet another child may be sensitive enough to the feel of certain fabrics that it can dictate what kind of clothing he can wear.
“Autism is not cookie cutter,” said Michael Wade, the Exceptional Family Member Program systems navigator at Fort Bliss Army Community Service. “A person could be anywhere on the spectrum. This will dictate what kind of treatment they will need.”
The support group, which has the motto “A soft place to land,” understands the military lifestyle, said Neal.
“The challenges and struggles for us are different,” said Neal. “We can help parents navigate the system. We can also do advocacy.”
“It all starts with enrolling your family members in the EFMP,” said Wade. “Once they are enrolled, then ACS can offer resources. Family members may not know about educational testing or doctors available for them.”
The support group is also a great place for parents to get together and share resources, said Tiffany Moss, a support group co-leader.
“We understand the frustration of moving and having to start over every few years,” said Moss, who has five children, two who are on the spectrum. “Learning the system can be so overwhelming at times. It’s really nice to have others to share information with.”
“The group gives you connections with people who understand what you have to deal with,” said Neal. “We don’t want parents to have the feeling of being lost.”
An example of information shared at a meeting can include what schools are the most helpful to parents, where to buy certain items for children or even what dentists in the local area are the best for those on the spectrum.
On-site child care is provided at the meetings through the installation chapel. The staff has experience in dealing with children who have special needs. Families interested in attending the meetings do not have to be registered through Army Child, Youth and School Services.
The group is supported by many in the Team Bliss community, including Col. Joseph A. Simonelli Jr., Fort Bliss garrison commander, who attended the most recent meeting.
“This group has never said ‘what are you going to do for us,’” said Simonelli. “They have always come to me and said this is what we would like to do. This is a true example of the Team Bliss community coming together as a family to address a need.”
One of those needs that have been met is the sensory-friendly movies. It can be difficult at times to take children on the spectrum to movies. Although EFMP shows sensory-friendly movies once a month at the Fort Bliss ACS theater, the movies shown at The Grand are first-run movies. This has been a monthly event at The Grand since May.
“It is nice to know that I can take my children to a new movie with no worry about condemnation,” said Moss. “It is so freeing. It’s a very non-judgmental environment … a place where kids or parents can get up and walk, talk or dance if they want to.”
One message the group wants to get out to parents who may have just received the diagnosis of having a child on the spectrum is that they are not alone.
“Autism is the single largest group of the EFMP the Army is dealing with,” said Wade. “For some reason, the Army has higher numbers than the general population.”
In the Army, it is 1-in-74. In the general population, it is 1-in-108, said Wade.
“We want to fight the stereotype of having a child with special needs is a detriment to a military career,” said Moss.
“A majority of the EFMP are sergeant first class and above,” added Wade. “We want to get the message to our junior soldiers that it is OK to be enrolled. Autism affects the entire family, not just the person diagnosed.”
Leaders of the group are available for a one-on-one meeting, as well as the larger support group meetings. Anyone interested in further information or attending the next meeting can contact Jennifer Neal by calling 706-332-8749 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This work, Team Bliss supports special needs, by SSG Casey McGeorge, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.