“Our mission statement is to serve as the leading voice and resource of the local autism community,” explains Brad Burnette, president of Autism Spectrum on the Emerald Coast, Inc.
The nonprofit is a re-branding of the Autism Society of the Emerald Coast as an entirely locally operated entity.
“Our main focus is the young adult population,” says Burnette, who goes on to explain how the younger set has access to therapies within the school system. “Once they graduate out of school, there are really no programs to support the young adults.” To fill that gap, Autism Spectrum on the Emerald Coast, Inc created EMERGE. EMERGE meets weekly to help members work on life, communication, and friendship skills. EMERGE members even pitch in at a Bingo night at an assisted living facility, offering a chance to build confidence.
“We use those opportunities to help the young adults build the ability to make friendships within the community and within schools,” says Burnette. “We also work on job skills like working on filling out applications and resumes— and how not to be taken advantage of in the workplace, like saying ‘yes’ to everything you are asked to do.”
EMERGE isn’t all serious business, with family events planned over the course of the year for boat excursions, Big Kahuna’s after hours, and even an annual breakfast with Santa.
Burnette aims to fill other gaps in the community, including opening EMERGE to participants beyond the autism community. “We open it up to other young adults with other diagnoses. We open the door to everyone who can benefit from what we are teaching here.
“Success stories are when we can pair someone with job placement,” says Burnette, emphasizing that the nonprofit is always looking for companies interested in hiring individuals on the spectrum.
Autism Spectrum on the Emerald Coast, Inc. offers other community services, such as first responder training, teacher grants aimed at enhancing the educational experience of students with autism, and sponsoring local special needs sports teams.
Burnette often finds himself filling another role as well. “I get a lot of phone calls from people moving into the area and looking for different service providers, so we are a really large resource for that. I consider myself an ambassador to the other organizations.”
There is a much bigger goal on the horizon, with the nonprofit working towards opening a public charter school that will be inclusive in nature. They hope to have it open by or before the 2018-19 school year.
The first step in the fundraising process is the Spring Fam Jam event March 18 at the Mullet Festival Grounds in Niceville. The event includes a color run, vendors, children’s area, and live music from Continuum, The Moon Lagoons, Forrest Williams, Dino Lorudi and more. Early bird tickets begin at $5, and afternoon entry is $15. A limited number of special VIP packages are available.
To register for the EMERGE program, become a volunteer for Spring Fam Jam or order tickets, visit asecfl.com.