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Local nonprofit providing support for children with autism and their families

When Kim Nelson learned her grandson had autism, her world to come to standstill. Like many parents and grandparents, she had a lot of questions and was frantic to find answers and to help.

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Kim Nelson, founder of Empowering Kids Perham and her grandson, Levi. (submitted photo).

When Kim Nelson learned her grandson had autism, her world to come to standstill. Like many parents and grandparents, she had a lot of questions and was frantic to find answers and to help.

Flooded with emotions, but determined to help her grandson, Nelson set out on a mission to learn all she could about the autism spectrum, and that mission started what would be the groundwork for Empowering Kids Perham.

Providing kids on the autism spectrum the skills they need to succeed is what Empowering Kids Perham hopes to achieve, according to Amy Zamzo, executive director and director of programming.

Zamzo, who has worked as an occupational therapist and autism specialist for about 18 years, said Empowering Kids started as a program of the Boys and Girls Club, initially called Bright Futures, but in order to include all the services and ages they want to reach, the group needed to branch out on their own.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain that impact three core areas of functioning: social skills, communication and behavior.

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Nelson's journey with autism began when her grandson, Levi, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. They received helped, but after a certain point, the in-home services end.

"We just knew we needed more, and there was nothing around here. I talked with other families who found themselves in similar circumstances," Nelson said.

When a child with autism is initially diagnosed, families can receive assistance through Freshwater, the special education cooperative that provides services to 12 school districts in the area for children from birth to age seven.

Nelson said the schools and Freshwater do a great job, but, Zamzo explained, because of the way regulations are set up, when kids reach preschool age or kindergarten, the home services are no longer available.

"So families kind of don't know what to do next when the in-home services end," Zamzo said.

Heidi Solberg, a K-12 special education teacher at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School, and

licensed autism specialist, is the Program Specialist for Empowering Kids Perham and works with the kids after school. She feels working with the same kids during the day and after school gives her a unique advantage because she already knows their background, and they are familiar with her.

Zamzo believes what makes Empowering Kids Perham unique is that it's offering quality affordable programming; they are collaborating with community organizations such as the school district and Perham Health to make sure children are getting what they need without overlapping services; they are offering programs such as "out-and-about" to teach social skills; and they have support services for parents and other organizations within the community.

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"If families are not able to afford the cost of the services, we also offer scholarships," Zamzo said. "We want to make this affordable to everyone who needs it."

She added that they don't want to take children out of school to be in their programs, which is why their services are after school, evenings, and Friday mornings, when there is no preschool, and during the summer months when less services are available.

Zamzo said the biggest misconceptions about autism probably stem from the assumption that because the kids look like everyone else, they should behave like everyone else. But the truth is their brain is wired differently, and in a world where being social determines how successful someone is, and that is part of their learning disability, they are misunderstood much the time.

"It's not natural for them to socially interact with others. For me I feel that's the biggest misconception. There isn't as much empathy, and they are judged just because their disability isn't obvious," Zamzo said.

Nelson shared that the family is affected too because they want to protect their child, and so they stop going out.

"You start saying 'no' to invitations, and people take it the wrong way. But you are doing it to protect the child and also to protect yourself from the response you get from people because you don't know how people are going to react to you and your child. Your whole family starts to be secluded," she said.

To help with the social aspect, Zamzo explained they offer therapeutic recreation to help the children learn the skills they need to interact with others and what is expected in different settings.

"We talk about the hidden rules. The majority of the population picks up on that, but kids on the spectrum need to be taught that."

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Nelson and her family have seen first hand the benefits of that particular class.

"We went to Easter brunch in the cities with my family. And we had the sheet from the Pizza Ranch outing, and beforehand we went over it," Nelson said. "Levi did great. He was polite, he started conversation at the table and when they do that, it is so unusual."

Zamzo said the socials skills work is different than just learning how to be polite because kids on the autism spectrum don't naturally think about others, so the classes really have to break it down for them.

"It's unique to have something like this in rural Minnesota," Zamzo said.

Zamzo sees potential in all the students she works with, and even though the nonprofit is only a few weeks old, she already has dreams for future programs with Empowering Kids.

"I want to get some systems in place to get these kids employed, because they have great skills, it's just they need that little bit of help... that little bit of coaching to get into the community," she said. "So one of my big dreams is to figure out what job openings are in the community and how to simulate that at our site and help kids get coached into those positions."

Registration for 2018 winter classes is now open and includes preschool play groups (ages 2-1/2 to 5), social skills classes and therapeutic recreation opportunities (school age), parent support services, and a variety of trainings and parent education events.

For more information, please contact Amy or Christi at 218-346-2322, info@empoweringkidsperham.org , or www.empoweringkidsperham.org . Information is also available on the Empowering Kids Perham Facebook page.

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