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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Autism event informs families and helps children

Ethan Pelletier was 4 when he broke out of his mother’s hand hold and almost got hit by a car in a parking lot about a year ago.

Diagnosed with autism at 3 years old, he tends to wander away from his parents, but at the Autism Safety and Awareness Day event Saturday, his mother didn’t have to worry. Ashley and Michael Pelletier, both 25, learned about ways to keep Ethan safe at the event held at Kiwanis Safety City at 1025 NE 13th St.

About 14 families attended the event hosted by the UF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, which provided information about water and fire safety, along with wandering prevention strategies for families with people with autism spectrum disorder.

Participating organizations included Gainesville Police, Gainesville Fire Rescue, TRiLOC, Noah’s Endeavor Inc. and Let’s Go 4 Kids.

The event was inspired by tragedies in North Central Florida, such as a boy who wandered away from home, got lost and drowned, said Gregory Valcante, the director of UF’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.

Ashley said the fenced-in venue provided a safe environment for her son.  

“I never even heard of stuff like this, and I like it because it’s all closed off,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about them running away or, like, parents looking at them funny or anything because other people here have autism, too.”

The UF center handed out safety gear boxes to families, which included a wristband, window/door alarm and an emergency seat belt ID.

After hearing about TRiLOC’s GPS locator, Michael said he plans on purchasing one for Ethan to wear on his wrist before their trip to Walt Disney World.

Children had the chance to climb into a firetruck and meet police officers and firefighters. Meeting with the first responders helped the children learn not to be afraid of them, Valcante said.

Children with autism spectrum disorder have communication problems, so they’re not able to understand the dangers they may put themselves into, he said.

“Having the firetruck here with no lights or sirens gives the children an opportunity to get inside of it, talk to a firefighter and meet them in a nonstress environment,” said Krista Ott, a risk reduction specialist at Gainesville Fire Rescue.

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Ott told families about the alternatives to regular smoke alarms, including alarms that can record a parent’s voice. Parents can also record directions for the child to go to a specific meeting place by using  the alarms.

“I really feel like it’s one of the events we’ve been to that the families are leaving definitely with more safety information than they came with,” Ott said.

Ashley said she plans on bringing Ethan back to the next UF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities event.

“It’s really awesome, and if they do any more of these, we’ll definitely go,” she said.

[A version of this story ran on page 5 on 11/24/2014]

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