JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's National Autism Awareness Month. One in 68 babies are born with autism. It's a number that has gone up nearly 120 percent in just seven short years. Locally, there's a nonprofit school that's addressing the needs of children and adults with the disorder. But the owner says to take the school to the next level she needs the community's help.
It's a diagnosis that rocked Michelle Dunham's world when her son Nicholas was diagnosed with autism before he turned 3 years old.
"When you get an autism diagnosis it's really difficult. And it's almost as if you have to mourn the loss of a typical child," says Dunham.
After grieving, the next step for Michele was to come up with a plan.
Hers included leaving her job in sales management to manage her family, full time.
"So I just had to change everything that I was doing and I jumped out of the business world. And I decided to take action to help my son. At the time he just needed a lot more than any other program could offer," says Dunham.
She stopped looking for help and started working to find a solution.
First, with other parents in her same shoes and then she and her husband and another family opened Jacksonville School for Autism.
Kai was in a traditional school and has made great strides at JSA.
"I like to play air hockey with Tyler. I like to play on the iPad. I like to play Chutes and Ladders. I like to play Uno with Sam and Olivia. I think that's all," says Kai.
The work is intense, behavioral and occupational therapy, language skills, math, science, and much more.
" It makes me excited," says Kai.
Dunham wants to make sure Kai, and all her students, have a chance at a productive future they'll enjoy.
A recent study found 35 percent of young adults 19-23 with autism have not had a job or received postgraduate education.
MIchelle wants to change that and she's seen success with her own son.
Nicholas works at Publix using the tools he learned at JSA.
"The pride that he has in being there is overwhelming. And he knows that when he is there he has a job to do. Just like every other parent, I want my son to have something that engages him, that motivates him," says Dunham.
The concept of growth is everywhere on campus. You can see examples of that grown in the garden where students learn how to grow food and plants. It translates into skills that Michelle hopes the community understands make us all better.
"Autism may affect my life with my son, autism may affect our families lives but truly autism is going to be something that affects everyone in our community.
So what's most important is that we create a venue and a pathway for our young adults to be gainfully employed and support them.
Really, in Jacksonville we have a wonderful opportunity to create a model that doesn't exist in northeast Florida or Florida," says Dunham.
JSA is holding a golf tournament to raise money for the school.
It's Monday, April 24 and there are a number of ways for you get involved.
For more information click http://www.jsakids.org/fundraisers/golf-classic/