Not all teenagers are problems. Now celebrating their 15th year, Pathfinders for Autism is a teenager that continues to be a kind, reliable, and comprehensive guiding voice for individuals, parents, and professionals navigating the challenges of autism spectrum disorders. Learning Links had the chance to sit down with Pathfinder’ executive director, Rebecca Rienz and get an inside take on this fantastic organization.
Pathfinders is proof of Margaret Mead’s well known adage; “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Formed by a handful of parents of children with autism, including Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer William “B.J.” Surhoff, his wife Polly Winde Surhoff, Pathfinders has grown into the State’s largest autism organization dedicated to helping individuals, parents and professionals find resources, supports and training while working to increase the awareness of autism spectrum disorders and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. It begins with the diagnosis.
Every parent of a child on the spectrum can tell you exactly where they were and what they felt when they got the diagnosis. Without question it is one of the most painful, confusing and life changing events that many have faced.
“We are here for parents in that moment,” Rienz explains. “What makes Pathfinders really special is that when parents who have just received a diagnosis call us the phones are being answered by parents just like them. These are people who had a variety of professional and life experiences before they became the parents of a child with Autism.” The people these distraught parents are speaking with understand the complex range of emotions first hand. Rienz, adds, “Our staff has been there. They know what it feels like. So they listen. Sometimes that is the most important part. Just helping parent’s process. Letting them cry. Letting them vent. Calls can last ninety minutes.”
At that moment parents are extended a helping hand. They realize that won’t have to go through this maze alone. The fight will be long and the learning curve steep and every child with Autism is different, but the first bit of advice that Pathfinders tries to offer is simple. As Rienz puts it “we tell them to this is not a race but a journey and we will be there to answer every single question along the way.”
Talking to Rienz you come to understand that the “every single question,” approach is part of Pathfinders D.N.A. The organization is thorough in its approach to make the road for parents easier. Early on Pathfinders discovered that families of children with Autism weren’t getting out into the world as much as typical families. As Rienz makes clear, “it is very stressful for parents with autistic children to put themselves and their children in situations where other people might not be sensitive to certain behaviors.”
Pathfinders took up this challenge and began hosting free events for the whole family. These opportunities for the entire family to experience a “typical” outing with others who are sensitive to their situation without some of the common barriers many families experience on a daily basis have been hugely popular. Rienz’s favorite is the trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. “It is a beautiful event. We rent out the entire space and close it to the public. Every barrier that might keep people from going out, we remove. Aside from it being free and filled only with families who have members with Autism, we educate the staff on behaviors they might see, establish a quiet room and are fully prepared so that the visit goes as smoothly as possible.”
Part of the power of these events is that information is being shared. Families with children with Autism are connecting with one another and the staff of these facilities is getting first hand experience. Spreading information and awareness is the essence of Pathfinder’s mission. As Rienz explains “We are really always wanting to break down barriers.”
This has guided the creation of Pathfinder’s many other programs including training for parents and professionals, programs for early detection and their Autism Resource Center, which provides answers to families in need. As Pathfinder’s states “This program is the cornerstone of our efforts to serve Maryland’s families by: providing timely, accurate autism-specific information and resources; responding personally to inquiries via telephone and email; and distributing monthly “Parent Tips” articles on a variety of topics. Directly assisting nearly 1,000 families each year, the Pathfinders for Autism Resource Center helps families navigate the often confusing and complex array of services, treatment and programs available to them.”
As from her wonderful and dedicated staff another thing that makes Pathfinder’s unique is having a baseball hall of famer as a founder. “He is very active and committed,” though Rienz explains “He’s works so hard here I forget he’s anyone special. He’s just another one of the team.”