Northeast Arc is celebrating Autism Awareness Month and the 30th anniversary of its Autism Support Center by partnering with the Salem News for an essay contest.

We are asking community members to write a short essay (250 words or less) on their experiences living with, learning from, and loving someone with autism during a pandemic.

“As we are coming off an unprecedented period of restriction due to the pandemic, which I think highlighted the fact that people with autism and other developmental disabilities often live in isolation every day,” said Jo Ann Simons, president and CEO of Northeast Arc. “I hope we have all learned how lonely isolation can be and think of ways in which we can help those with disabilities feel more included in society.”

Although April is Autism Awareness Month, at the Northeast Arc we prefer to call it Autism Acceptance Month.

“We are way past awareness of this disorder,” said Gloria Ricardi Castillo, director of Northeast Arc’s Autism Support Center, which today serves nearly 3,000 families from all over Northeast Massachusetts. “With the prevalence of autism today we need to be focused on acceptance.”

This month marks a special milestone for Northeast Arc — we opened the Autism Support Center in April 1991, a collaboration among parents, Northeast Arc Family Support staff, and the state Department of Developmental Services. Together, we sought a federal grant to support families coping with autism. At the time, specialized autism services and programs were either rare or non-existent, and there was limited research on the disorder. Back then, the prevalence of autism was one in 10,000 births — in 2020, the Center for Disease Control reported that approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

The support center provided services and opportunities to build relationships for parents who otherwise thought they were alone in dealing with an autism diagnosis.

“They shared information such as which pediatricians were knowledgeable, who the best dentists in the area were, where to get a good evaluation, how to find a babysitter, resources, literature and more,” said Ricardi Castillo.

“Parents of older children mentored parents of younger children and shared their insight and knowledge,” added Ricardi Castillo.

One of the founding parents, Susan Gilroy, became the program director and remained in that role until her recent retirement.

“The sense of community and understanding that they had garnered led us to where we are today,” said Ricardi Castillo.

As for the essay contest, a team at the Autism Support Center will choose the winners who will receive cash prizes: $250 for first place, $150 for second place, and $100 for third place. The winning essays will be published in the Salem News.

Essays must be submitted by email to Entries must include the author’s name, address, and contact phone number. The deadline to submit is Friday, April 30. Call Gloria Ricardi Castillo at 978-624-2301 with questions.

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