SARATOGA SPRINGS — Noah Howarth sat down on a couch with his peers to escape the excitement and noise of vendors in the auditorium.
His mother, Kristin Howarth of Queensbury, approached him with a single-page framed poem. Howarth said his 18-year-old non-verbal or “unreliable” son wrote a poem with the program the family attends weekly in Westchester County.
“What they do is called ‘spell to communicate’. It takes the fine motor aspect of speech and turns it into gross motor skills, which is easier using a letter board. He wrote this poem with the help of Judy (the instructor) on Wednesday and I’m so proud I just have to show it,” Howarth said.
Howarth said Noah and his twin brother were both diagnosed with autism when they were 2 years old and stayed in special education classes with an “infant program”.
“My boys are really, really smart, they just need a vehicle to get there,” she said.
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Howarth and her husband are founders of the Upstate NY Autism Alliance, which focuses on creating social and physical activities for children and teens diagnosed with autism.
“We were meeting families after our boys were diagnosed who were in the same situation looking for services and we couldn’t find many, so we said why not just start a few?” Howarth explained.
She said they mainly focus on out-of-school events and more recently on physical programs offered after discovering that children tend to become more sedentary and isolated with little physical activity.
Andrew Paolano of Glens Falls recognized a similar problem when he graduated from high school.
Paolano said he founded the young adult social group four years ago, after finding himself looking for friends to combat the loneliness he experienced after school.
“I wanted to make more friends while giving back to the community and helping others,” he said.
The group is always open to new members over the age of 18 and has grown from five people at its inception to now 25-30 regular and recurring members.
Paolano said anyone with a disability can join and attend group outings such as Sky Zone trips, snow tubing, bowling, park picnics and holiday parties.
“I love seeing everyone making friends in a happy, fun, safe environment. I feel like we don’t have stuff like that available,” he said.
Julie Marks, the main organizer of Saratoga Springs Autism Expo, recognized this need when she started the event 10 years ago.
“In my professional life, I have been continually contacted by families looking for services and service providers, and another of my colleagues from the Parents’ Network has seen the same thing. So we brainstormed together and realized it would be great to have a one-stop-shop for the services available,” Marks said of the show’s debut.
When it started, the event was held at Skidmore College’s Intermural Gymnasium, but she said they quickly outgrew that space in two years.
The exhibition was suspended due to COVID, but returned with fewer vendors allowed to participate this year.
“We capped at 50 exhibitors this year, but our last event before COVID, in 2019, we had over 90 tables,” Marks said.
She praised the artwork displayed in a gallery before entering the main auditorium.
“All of these pieces were made by people with autism. Living Resources runs a program called the Carriage House Arts Program and they do a phenomenal job,” she said, showing an acrylic painting of a seated ballerina.
Marks and Howarth were also both excited about the sensory room that was available to attendees this year.
Amy Catalfamo, owner of Sensory tOT Spot in Malta, designed the room for the first time this year.
“We designed our sensory room today to be soothing and really engage all of our children’s senses. We’ve added sensory lights and bean bag chairs for comfortable seating. We also have a sensory glitter board, so hopefully there is something for all the kids who need it,” Catalfamo said.
Catalfamo is an occupational therapist who started her own business in March 2021 after gaining community work experience traveling to family homes and daycares.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, also stopped by the expo to show his appreciation for some of the most notable local organizations by handing out certificates of achievement.
Among the recipients of the senator’s certificates were a group of psychology students from Skidmore College who occupied the large arts and crafts tables set up to engage guests with fun activities while exploring the vendor tables.
“There’s actually a professor there who runs a whole course centered around the exhibit, with events taking place during the two weeks surrounding the exhibit,” Marks told the senator.
Tedisco said he believes programs like this “open so many doors.”
“More and more doors are opening because of programs like this and new concepts being introduced,” he said.
Jana DeCamilla is a writer covering Moreau, Queensbury and Lake George. She can be reached at 518-742-3272 or [email protected]