Flint, MI– Neon blue and pink lights swirled around B’s Bowling Center as 10-year-old Mason, who’d been bowling before but never at night and never with such a big crowd, stepped up to take his turn. 

On this Friday evening, April 22, the bowling alley was packed full of families and children for an autism awareness event hosted by Flint’s Zeta Beta Zeta sorority chapter. Between the dancing lights and the sound of music, arcade games, and laughter, there was a chance that Mason might have experienced sensory overload–but he didn’t. 

Instead, he was filled with excitement and awe as soon as he walked in the door, having never seen anything like it. When his bowling ball rolled down the lane and struck a pin, Mason couldn’t contain his joy. He began jumping up and down and flapping his hands.

Mason’s mom, Teresa Lucas, said some of the “neurotypical kiddos” stared at Mason when he reacted this way. Hand flapping is a form of self-stimulation that children with autism sometimes do when they’re excited, but unless you know that, it might look a bit odd. 

Lucas approached the children who had been staring and explained what her son was doing.

“He’s jumping because he’s excited,” Lucas told one little girl. “He hit a pin.”

“Oh, I do that sometimes when I’m excited too,” the girl said. 

Lucas, who organized the event, said having interactions like that were part of her intention for the night. 

“We’re giving them exposure. That’s what it is– autism awareness and acceptance,” Lucas said. “So we’re just creating a space where kids and adults are exposed to people with differences. They’re not less. They just handle things differently, and that’s OK too.”

Autism in Flint

Lucas is a special education teacher at Doyle-Ryder Elementary School. She had been working as an educator in Flint long before she had her son, Mason. 

“As a teacher, I noticed that there was a huge influx of kids starting to come in who were autistic,” Lucas said. 

The percentage of students in Flint Community Schools with special education needs is almost twice the rest of the state and more than double the percentage in neighboring municipalities.

According to Michigan’s Official Education Data Source, for the 2020-2021 school year, 13.4% of students in the state had special education needs. In Genesee County, that amount jumped slightly to 14.4%.

But in Flint, there is an even bigger difference. The data shows that 23.4% of students in Flint Community Schools had special education needs for that school year. Of those children, 7.4% had autism specifically.

To put that in context, in Grand Blanc the number of students with special education needs that year was 11.8%, for Davison it was 11%, and for Flushing it was 12.7%.

In 2020, the State Superintendent Michael Rice ordered that the Genesee Intermediate School District had to change their special education funding formula because it did “not satisfy the legal requirements that intermediate school district plans be designed to meet the needs of each student with a disability.”

The old formula did not account for the differences in need across municipalities, leaving Flint Schools with less funding for a higher number of special education students compared to other school districts. As Judge Michael St. John wrote in a recommendation to Rice, the old formula did “not meet the individual needs of each student with a disability in Genesee County, particularly those special education students attending FCS.” 

Lucas said she witnessed a lack of support herself. 

“There weren’t any supportive services for them, like in terms of social programs, things to help them to cultivate and develop friendships with peers,” she said. 

She began putting together “peer mentoring groups,” for her students who needed it. 

Lucas was always passionate about helping her students with special needs, but it became even clearer that this was what she was meant to do once she had Mason. 

“That really kind of gave me that razor focus for the kind of support kids would need,” Lucas said. “So I’m looking at that from two lenses: as a mother, and as a special education teacher.”

As a mom, she watched Mason struggle to make friendships. She saw other children shy away, not understanding autism. She saw teachers not knowing enough about autism to create an inclusive environment for Mason, and others. 

But even with her background in special education, Lucas said she wasn’t prepared for having a child of her own with autism.

“A stressed and anxious mind is not a thinking mind,” she said. “So thank God, I have my husband who is absolutely amazing. He was able to kind of help me to stay focused and reminded me of my skill sets, and my abilities to help our son in ways I know other parents aren’t able to.”

With her knowledge, she set off on a mission to create programs, summer camps, and social events like the bowling night that provided social experiences for children with autism.

Nia Hemphill, 7, prepares to roll her bowling ball down the lane during the Zeta Beta Zeta Chapter Autism Awareness Fun-Raising event at B’s Bowling Center in Flint, Mich. on April 22, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

“I created programs within the community, not in a separate office somewhere, but in the real world, giving them real-world experiences,” she said. “So they get to practice skills they learn in therapy in a real way.”

But she also thought about the parents.

“I still try to share with other families the information that I have for free. I give my number out. I’m available at any time, you know, I totally get it,” Lucas said. “So I try to help them navigate this journey, because it’s a difficult one.”

Overcoming stigma

While a lack of programming was part of the problem, Lucas said there was another component keeping children with autism from social events. 

The stigma.

“A lot of us, I’ll be honest, are worried about how we appear to other people who don’t have to deal with autism,” Lucas said. “If our kids are flapping or jumping around, it makes people uncomfortable, and then we get the stares. And so a lot of us choose to stay home.”

In a 2015 study of 502 families, each with one child with autism, researchers found that many parents believed that most or some of the public held negative beliefs about people with autism. 

Those beliefs include that a person with autism cannot “be a good friend,” that they are “dangerous,” and even that their autism was “caused by the way they were parented.” 

Many families also reported self-isolating and being excluded from social events. 

Of all of the parents who participated in the study, 40.4% reported “isolating themselves from friends and family often or sometimes in the past 6 months by deciding not to spend time with them because of the autistic behaviors of their child.”

Additionally, 31.7% of parents reported that they were “often or sometimes excluded from events and activities by others.” 

The authors of the study write that the parents “believe the difficulty they experience because of stigma is rooted in experiences of stereotyping, rejection, and exclusion.” They suggest that the child’s autism-related behaviors themselves aren’t the cause of the parents’ difficulty with stigma– it’s the rejection and exclusion from others.

Lucas said that while she doesn’t care what people think about her son’s behaviors, she knows that a lot of parents do. 

“So for those parents, we have events like this, where it’s all of us together. There’s power in numbers,” she said.

Lucas explained that if a child is hand flapping, or jumping, or upset, many of the other parents at the event will understand what’s going on and offer help and support. Being a part of this network of families can also be incredibly helpful to a parent whose child has just recently been diagnosed with autism, she said.

“We have a mom, her son was just diagnosed, like, two weeks ago. She reached out to me on Facebook and asked about what we were doing, and I told her to come out so that I can provide her with some support and next steps,” Lucas said. 

She ended up coming to the event with her whole family unit, and Lucas said she got to interact with other parents and see how they live their lives. 

“It’s a pretty good network. And we kind of stick together in that way,” Lucas said. 

Families gather at the Zeta Beta Zeta Chapter Autism Awareness Fun-Raising event at B’s Bowling Center in Flint, Mich. on April 22, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

It’s a win-win situation. The parents find support and safety with each other, and the children get to have the social experiences they are often lacking. 

“I’m just trying to figure out how we can prepare these kids for fulfilling lives, you know, improve their quality of life,” Lucas said. “You can’t have a happy life when you’re always isolated.”

More events to come

Flint’s Zeta Beta Zeta Chapter President Karen Utsey said she was glad Lucas took the lead within the chapter to host events centered around autism awareness and acceptance. 

“She strives to make sure that Mason is included, and that he can interact with other children,” Utsey said. “And he’s the greatest kid, and so she’s gotten such a large support system in the organization. And we had a good turnout tonight.”

Utsey said she saw that some of the children were shy at first, but that after a little while, they “just opened right up.” 

The following day, on Saturday, April 23, Lucas hosted another social event at Totem Bookstore for families to play “sensory-friendly” board games. 

She said planning that event was made easy with the support of the store owner. Lucas said he adjusted the environment to create an open space inside the bookstore for the families to play. 

“He was amazing. He was just like, ‘We’ve been trying to figure out how we can get more people within the community, open it up, make it more diverse,'” she said. “But not every business is like that.” 

For Lucas to plan the social events that she does, she says she needs businesses who are willing to adjust their spaces and work with her to create an inclusive environment. 

For the bowling alley, Lucas said no adjustments needed to be made. She checked with all of the families to see what their children’s sensitivities were. If there were light sensitivities, she said she would have adjusted the lighting situation. For one family with noise sensitivities, Lucas provided noise-canceling headphones. 

“I think if more businesses came on board, we could provide more opportunities, so I’m limited by that,” Lucas said. 

She hopes that more businesses will be open to having those events in their spaces, and says this kind of social interaction is beneficial to everyone involved, not just the children with autism. 

“I think it’s important that families have their kids around kids with learning differences or social differences because it helps them to be more accepting, to create a more inclusive environment, and for them to be more well-rounded than individuals too,” Lucas said.

Tanisha Wilson brought her daughter to the bowling event. Wilson’s daughter doesn’t have autism, but she is an only child, so Wilson said she had a great time getting to socialize with other children.

Wilson also used to work for the GISD, and said she thought events centered around autism awareness and acceptance were important for the community.

“It shows kids that there’s different kinds of children out here. They need to respect and understand that, and have compassion and empathy for students with special needs,” Wilson said.

Wilson and Lucas both touched on the fact that neurotypical children and children with learning differences will need to be able to work together in the future.

“Having these different kinds of kids together not only benefits our kids,” Lucas said. “You’re going to work with these people. So you need to learn how to cope, and you’re going to need to learn how to communicate with them.”

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...