By Emma Castleberry
Michele Louzon, founder and executive director of Arms Around ASD, started the organization in January of 2015 simply because she saw a need in the community. “We were looking to provide support for families with children on the autism spectrum,” she says. Initially, Louzon was going to focus on animal therapy, so the organization’s original name was Paws on ASD. “Things morphed along the way, but our mission to provide support for families stayed the same,” she says. “It quickly became apparent that the majority of the people we were seeing were adolescents and young adults, and very few children.” Louzon says this is because many children on the spectrum receive services from the school system.
So, in 2017, the organization became Arms Around ASD (AAASD). “It was no longer for low-income families with children along the autism spectrum,” Louzon says. “Now, we provide services for people on the autism spectrum regardless of age or income, as well as their families and the caregivers who work with them. We aren’t just providing support to the person on the spectrum, we’re providing support to people who are working with this population and also need this support.”
In the early days of the organization, Louzon attended an Autism Society of North Carolina conference. “A psychologist spoke about some research on success for adults on the spectrum and how they defined success: not just getting a job but keeping it,” she says. NPR reports that young adults with autism are far less likely to be employed than their peers with other disabilities. Louzon didn’t know this when she attended that conference, but she recognized the impact that employment had on quality of life for individuals with autism. “I had interacted with enough people on the spectrum to know employment was a big deal,” she says. “The research showed that it wasn’t intelligence or ability to interact with peers or how well one does in school, but rather the development of executive functioning skills that influenced the ability to get and keep a job. Executive functioning skills are things like organizational skills, hygiene, working memory, flexible thinking, self regulation, planning and prioritizing and impulse control.”
This information directed the service offerings at AAASD. “None of us are born with executive functioning skills,” says Louzon. “Those of us who are supposedly neurotypical develop them over time by doing regular tasks. It’s more difficult for those who are neurodiverse. Things like meditation and yoga and dance and sports, among other things, help develop executive functioning skills. All the activities we choose to offer are hand-picked to support our community.”
AAASD offers practical services like executive functioning workshops, benefits advisement and half-hour consultations with a naturopath who specializes in autism, as well as services focused on the organization’s other cornerstone: self-care. This includes services like massage therapy, facials, meditation, massage, and exercise and dance classes. Other offerings include gardening, a social skills group, pet therapy, talk therapy and a music listening group. There is a suggested donation of 10 percent of the market value of the services ($3 for yoga or pilates, $8 for massage therapy), and clients can also pay with sweat equity through activities like cleaning, painting and set-up. No client is ever turned away for an inability to contribute.
Every person who works for Arms Around ASD is a volunteer— there are no paychecks. The organization began with three volunteers providing services for two families. Now, at the end of its fourth year, Arms Around ASD offers thirty services and boasts fifty volunteers. Louzon says this robust volunteer community is in part a result of the AAASD model: practitioners have the opportunity to use the AAASD space for paying clients at no charge. “If you volunteer for us, you have the opportunity to use the space to make money,” says Louzon.
Travis Jackson of Range of Motion Bodywork became a volunteer for AAASD shortly after he graduated from his clinical massage training. “I became the first volunteer and started coming to Michele’s house once a week and giving one-hour massages,” he says. When Louzon moved AAASD from her home to 191 Charlotte Street, Jackson moved his massage practice in with her and he now trades volunteer time for office rent. “I have heard time and time again from grateful people that they would not have been able to afford these services for themselves and their children if AAASD wasn’t there to provide them,” Jackson says. “AAASD provides a safe and accepting place where people can connect, volunteer, learn new skills and receive a variety of healing modalities.
Rochelle Hylton, the parent of a 14 year old with Down Syndrome and autism, became involved with Arms Around ASD as a client when the organization first began. She is now volunteers for the organization as massage scheduler. “Our son loves Zumba® and yoga,” she says. “I am especially grateful for the massage and the Move Your Body class. The instructors and volunteers are amazingly talented and work well with our children and families.”
Hylton says AAASD is important to the community because it provides services for the whole family. “As caregivers, we are stressed and burnt out from having to learn how to navigate a system that seems to be deliberately confusing and obstructive,” she says. “AAASD provides services that would otherwise be too expensive for families to afford on their own. If you have Medicaid, then you can get a lot of these services paid for. However, private insurance companies refuse to cover the services our children need. A lot of the clientele that AAASD serves are in that gap where we do not qualify for Medicaid, but cannot afford to self pay. Who can afford $70 an hour for therapy when your child needs two or more therapies per week? There is also very little available to adults on the spectrum or adults with special needs in general. AAASD fills in a huge gap in services that are severely needed.”
Arms Around ASD is located at 191 Charlotte Street in Asheville. For more information, visit ArmsAroundASD.org.