WALL TOWNSHIP — Easter egg hunts are a seasonal favorite for children each Easter Time, but they can also be extremely overwhelming situations — with their screaming, running and competition — for many children with autism.
That’s why this weekend, POAC Autism Services of Brick Township teamed up with Allaire Community Farm to host an Easter egg hunt and day at the zoo for children with autism and their families.
Allaire Community Farm Executive Director JoAnn Burney told The Coast Star about 280 children with autism from ages 2 to 18 and their family members showed up for an egg hunt, pony rides, a visit to the petting zoo before wrapping it up with some hot dogs.
“The weather was perfect. It was just a great day,” Ms. Burney said.
The farm and POAC will team up for various events like this around four or five times each year.
“Easter egg hunts, when they have these massive ones when it’s not during [a pandemic], can be extremely stressful for a child with autism. So we started doing this about five years ago because it’s a safe environment,” she said.
“Even if [a child] has an episode, no one is going to stare at them or make them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes with all the kids screaming and running it overwhelms them, and their sensory issues settle in and they’ll just shut down and end up getting no eggs. So this is a safe way to get them to have an Easter egg hunt without the stress of a big public event.”
Ms. Burney said that it’s also become a family event as siblings are also welcome to participate in the festivities, which was free to POAC members.
“The parents love it. Typically they wouldn’t bring their child to one of the big ones because they know how it would negatively impact them so they love this. It’s a great evening for the entire family, not just the children with autism.”
POAC Director Gary Weitzen said that events like Saturday’s are huge for the POAC community, which has over 100 events each year scheduled for children with special needs and their families.
“Sensory issues, social anxiety, anxiety in general is hard. So POAC has hundreds of free events each year for children with autism and their siblings, and we’ll rent out the whole place. The kids just know it’s a safe environment. Everyone there is happy to see each other,” Mr. Weitzen told The Coast Star.
Mr. Weitzen said the day was especially nice as he welcomed new families into the POAC community , which he described as a “family.”
Taking that first step into joining a community after a child is recently diagnosed can be a difficult step for families but also the most important, Mr. Weitzen said.
“Our kids loved it. And there were so many families that came out for the first time, either recently diagnosed children or parents who decided they were going to try [a program like] this,” he said. “And they came out and got to experience the beautiful farm and socialize. There were so many moms crying just looking at their children being children. Not children with special needs or children with autism, just kids.”
To learn more about Allaire Community Farms or POAC, visit allairecommunityfarm.org or POAC.net.
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