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Autism support group meets monthly in Hurricane

By Clint Thomas, Metro Reporter
Nathalie Henchey and her son, Olivier. Courtesy photo

A new autism support and social group is assembling monthly in Hurricane, forging bonds and developing a broader outreach around the region.

The Autism Society of West Virginia Putnam County Chapter meets from 2 to 4 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month at St. Timothy’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church, 3434 Teays Valley Road, in Hurricane.

Parents, professionals and individuals on the autism spectrum, from Putnam, Mason, Jackson and surrounding counties, are invited to join the group. Guest speakers discuss autism topics at meetings, with time allotted afterward for questions and other feedback.

Along with networking, the support group’s goals include creating a social skills group for individuals on the autism spectrum, hosting fundraising events and providing inclusive community events.

Chapter President Nathalie Henchey is raising an autistic son, Olivier, who just turned 18 and attends a special needs program at Hurricane High School. The Teays Valley resident, who is a registered nurse and a health coach with Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, is using her first-hand personal and professional knowledge of the condition -- and its challenges -- to inform and help others.

“We have about 15 members now. We started in December 2016. I ran a chapter about 10 years ago, but, after I left, it kind of fell apart. Now that my son is bigger, I decided to get involved again and restarted the chapter,” Henchey said.

“It’s something for parents out there to come out and participate in and network and get some training. And it’s all free. It’s an informal kind of meeting, with coffee and doughnuts, and then we’ll talk about behaviors and other issues.

“We can refer them to the appropriate place if they need to start support. If they have questions and need support, they are free to call and find out how to be helped with that. We want to network and help each other. This state is small, and there’s not that much available for autism, so you have to try to help.”

The St. Timothy’s-in-the-Valley location was chosen as an approximate central meeting point for families in Charleston and Huntington, she said.

Henchey said the exponential growth of diagnosed autism cases in recent years has made her mission more urgent to her, although she defines it as her passion.

“When my son was diagnosed,” she said, “autism was [diagnosed in] one in about every 2,400 births. Now it’s something like one in 64 or one in 68 births; it’s like an epidemic. When I started, I had no help; nobody knew much about it. I was fortunate to work with the Autism Training Center. They kind of took me under their wing. They told me, ‘It’s OK. It’s not a crisis, but it’s always going to be an issue. You need to chill out about this.’ Being a nurse, I thought I knew what autism was.”

She attended an Autism Society of America conference on the West Coast about 10 years ago, she said, which bolstered her resolve as an autism advocate. “I realized we need to do something. People need to know they’re not alone in this thing. We need to do something for these members and help them. As a nurse and health coach, I’d always been a good teacher, so I came in with my knowledge. We need to get educated and give support.

“I felt it was the right time to renew the chapter. Being older now, I know what they go through as a kid and a teen and an adult and those different challenges. I think I’m able to help. The challenge is there every day.

“You always worry they will hurt themselves, because they have no notion of danger. My son has severe seizures, he’s incontinent and he has other health issues. If he gets stressed out, we can have trouble communicating. My son was aggressive; when he was little, we had to start medicating him, which was against my beliefs, but when he started assaulting people at school, he started taking medication, and there were some health issues and side effects from that. Sometimes he wasn’t sleeping at all; that’s typical of autism. It’s work every day as they grow up.”

Henchey said she has had success in establishing patterns and routines for Olivier to follow to the best of his ability. “We’ve been trying to promote independence,” she said, “and find him a purpose, like becoming a volunteer at the [animal] shelter or working with animals. He’s limited in what he can do, but that’s OK.”

Henchey said the support group is designed to bring autism more into the mainstream, not only for autistic children and their parents, but for the community at large.

“We have a doctor and a social worker in the group,” she said. “It’s kind of nice having different professions involved. What one of my goals is, is to have mothers and fathers get to know different people and just decide after that to become friends and talk about their kids. When you have somebody to talk to who has the same kind of kid, you’re more comfortable.

“I’d like to set up playdates and find some kind of activities to do something fun, creative and social for them -- things they can enjoy without giving them sensory overload, but letting them get out and have friends. ... It’s about making a difference for those people who have autism and helping their families. If parents get burned out, they can’t help their kids as well.

“Another thing we’re trying to do is make it positive. Everybody knows about autism, but how can they deal with it? We’re hearing older parents talking to younger ones, saying ‘We tried this, we tried that.’ That kind of sharing is nice.

“Another thing we look at is advocating with the Legislature. We have a network where we can send emails and texts if they talk about bills. Parents can get involved. We’re promoting them. We’re a voice for them.

“We also keep in touch with research and discovery all of the time. We try to keep everybody updated with that.”

On Saturday, April 29, some of the chapter members will participate in an autism awareness walk at Ritter Park in Huntington.

“It’s a big event, a rally for autism,” Henchey said. “About 1,300 to 1,500 people walk or run or ride in a bicycle race.

“I’d like to do a cookout in a couple of months, with free stuff for families.”

Henchey said she is also promoting the chapter’s mission by distributing fliers and other information at area schools, churches and first responder sites, to suggest to individuals how to react and adapt more successfully to disruptive autistic behavior that might surface in a social or emergency setting.

“Right now, I’m targeting churches. We have talks on topics as needed. A lot of churches don’t know what to do with autistic children during services or why the kid is talking loudly during church,” she said.

Similarly, Henchey said, the chapter endeavors to educate emergency medical personnel on methods to address autistic patients. She said she tells parents, for instance, if they call 911 for an emergency, to let the first responders know about the autistic individual during the call. She also recommends placing a Medic Alert bracelet on the wrist of the autistic individual.

For further information about the Autism Society of West Virginia Putnam County Chapter, go online to aswvputnam.weebly.com or contact Nathalie Henchey at 304-993-1371.


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