This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
by JEREMY REYNOLDS | December 19, 2021
For many children, Christmastime means no school, relaxing with family, sweets and toys.
Care should be exercised, however, as certain toys are better suited for some children than others.
“Sensory toys are best for kids on the autism spectrum,” said Jamie Upshaw, founder of Pittsburgh’s Autism Urban Connections, an organization serving families with children on the spectrum.
“We try to focus on toys with different sounds, different feels, different lights — all of these things affect the kids in different ways, and we have to be really mindful about this when we’re passing out the toys,” she said.
Autism Urban Connections began as a support group in 2015 specifically focused on serving the African-American and minority communities due to a lack of resources, support and awareness of spectrum disorders. The earlier the diagnosis the better, as children who receive autism-appropriate support from a younger age are more likely to develop essential social skills.
“My son was almost 4 when we got a diagnosis,” Ms. Upshaw said. “I wanted to create something to help educate parents so a diagnosis doesn’t happen so late.”
Autism Urban Connections holds about three meetings a month in normal times — Ms. Upshaw estimated that before COVID-19 eight to 12 parents attended in person each meeting, although all meetings are currently virtual due to the pandemic — and offers families essential care packages as well as online and phone support.
Ms. Upshaw said the organization connects families with board-certified behavioral analysts for early diagnosis and intervention and then provides ongoing support and community.
The organization achieved nonprofit status in 2018 and partners with numerous organizations, ranging from UPMC and Highmark, to the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, to Wesley Family Services, a behavioral health services organization. It also has worked with American Sign Language as well as Armament Tactical Solutions to provide basic self-defense training.
Looking ahead, Autism Urban Connections is changing its programming in January to offer a six-week program where cohorts of people learn about autism and early stages of child development.
“Even when I first started talking with Jamie, I didn’t have a formal diagnosis,” said Noelle Sirrs, a mother who regularly attends Autism Urban Connections meetings with her son, Aiden, who turned 7 this month. “But I could tell from some signs that this was something to look out for.”
Ms. Sirrs, who lives on the North Side, said she initially was told that Aiden likely just had a behavioral disorder.
“These meetings have been a great thing, from helping learn sign language to cooking skills with my son,” she said. “I try to go to at least two or three times a month.”
On Dec. 11, the organization held its first holiday party, providing coats, hats and gloves, and toys from the Toys for Tots program to kids in need and providing a dinner and photo with Santa Claus. Ms. Sirrs attended and picked up a toy for Aiden.
The drive for donations is ongoing, and readers can help out by giving to the Post-Gazette’s Goodfellows campaign, which has provided money for the Marines Corps Toys for Tots program program for 75 years.
Send a tax-deductible donation to Post-Gazette Goodfellows, Box 590, Pittsburgh, PA 15230, or donate online at post-gazette.com/goodfellows.
Jeremy Reynolds: email@example.com or 412-263-1634; Twitter: @Reynolds_PG. Mr. Reynolds’ work at the Post-Gazette is supported by a grant from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty Foundation and Rubin Institute.
First Published December 19, 2021, 6:15am