Autism Alliance of Michigan gala will help build “A Brighter Tomorrow”

Autism Alliance of Michigan was founded with the vision that people with autism will lead lives that meet their greatest potential. We lead efforts to raise expectations and expand opportunities for people touched by autism across the lifespan.
AAoM's Marc Berke and friends at the 2023 gala.

The Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) is hosting its 13th annual Michigan Shines for Autism Gala on Saturday, April 20 at the MotorCity Casino Hotel in Detroit. This year’s theme is “A Brighter Tomorrow.” The goal for 2024’s gala is to illuminate every aspect of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) so that Michigan becomes a place where people of all ages living with ASD feel understood, valued, and accepted. 

“The purpose of this event is to bring together the broader community to raise awareness of the issues affecting individuals living with autism and their families and celebrate the progress we’ve made as a state to make life easier for people on the spectrum”, says Dr. Colleen Allen, AAoM President and CEO.

Awareness is crucial. In 2023, the CDC reported its autism prevalence statistics; the number of children with autism has increased from one in 44 to one in 36, measured across specific, CDC surveillance regions of 8 year old children. However, as the gala’s goal reflects, raising awareness does not end at the childhood level or at a specific level of need.

Dr. Colleen AllenUltimately, according to Allen, the mission is to help people across the spectrum achieve a better quality of life. Focusing on each person who needs assistance is crucial as ASD presents uniquely for each person and is affected differently based on their situation — from an adult in their 50’s with high-support needs looking for a better quality of life to an engineer struggling to secure a job due to communication or social challenges. 

“That’s really what our organization is for,” Allen says. “Connecting and securing services, support, information, and/or professional guidance for an individual family or person.”

Money raised will help improve outcomes for people with ASD in three focus areas — early identification, education, and employment.

Live musical entertainment will keep the evening hopping.
Raising funds for early identification and improved access;

Improving earlier identification and building greater access to services is the first of AAoM’s three mission pillars. The strategic goal is to reduce the average age of diagnosis to 2 years  through early identification and barrier-free access to services.

When the CDC updated its prevalence statistic in 2023, the CDC also cited the COVID-19 pandemic as delaying both timely ASD evaluations in children and connecting them to the support they need. Earlier diagnosis creates the opportunity for early intervention and improved outcomes in the lives of people with ASD.

Raj Nair serves as vice chair of AAom's board of directors and chair for its Navigator committee. Both of his children live with ASD. Nair took what he learned raising his older daughter and applied it while raising the younger daughter. For example, Nair and his wife recognized social and communication signals relating to ASD earlier with their younger daughter. Consequently,  Nair says their younger daughter received help with communication at home and in preschool much earlier.

“Relative to early diagnosis, clearly the studies and research over time have made it clear that the first years of a child's life really sets their path on healthy development," Nair says. "Early childhood education is really critical. Even for neurotypical kids, we know that participating in preschool programs is likely to be an early indication of success. So, when we think specifically about children with autism, all those important benefits and foundational skills are even more important for a child with autism.

The benefits of early diagnosis extend far beyond childhood. Tailoring interventions to an individual’s needs can help with everything from social communication and behavioral challenges to better social outcomes and increased independence in adulthood. According to Allen, the earlier a child gets relevant therapies, the more likely that child is to succeed in school, go to college, and live a mostly independent life.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and AAoM CEO Colleen Allen at the 2023 gala.
Raising funds for education and employment

Education funding is the focus of AAoM's second pillar of work; improving access to high-quality, inclusive education that will boost high-school graduation rates and postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. 

When a child is diagnosed early, receives therapies early, and is academically ready for school, education can prepare them for employment – AAoM’s third mission pillar.

Funding for this pillar aims to bring the employment rates of people with autism to the same level as the general population. AAoM’s employment program for job seekers and employers, Upbound Staffing, helps job seekers with ASD prepare for all aspects of a job search, monitors an employee through their first year at a new job, and helps companies make their work environments more inclusive for people with disabilities like autism.

“AAoM is constantly balancing transactional and system work, both of which are critical to making life better for people with autism,” says Allen. “Transactional work helps one person or one family at a time while system work aims to solve problems that cause the need for transactional work in the first place.”

Rochelle Riley presenting at the 2023 gala.
Raising funds for MiNavigator

AAoM’s flagship program is MiNavigator MiNavigator. This program was created to provide free professional consultation to individuals and families across Michigan affected by autism. Staffed by a team of experts in clinical, educational, insurance, employment, and other fields, Navigators have assisted over 17,000 families impacted by ASD by listening to their concerns and providing resource identification.

"The individual Navigators working with individual families are not only guiding them in directions and translating what all this means, but the family is really knowing they've got somebody on their side," Nair says. "That aspect of having somebody that's looking across the whole of their experience and being on their side is a big factor."

Nair says the annual gala is often the first opportunity for families to meet the staff behind this work. AAoM hopes to raise sufficient funds to support multiple programs serving the ASD community. 

“The gala is definitely the highlight of April,” Allen says. “And again, it's all about autism awareness and acceptance. This has been our way, over time, of really raising up the needs and also celebrating what we've accomplished. It’s just a really fun night.”

On the night of the gala, registration and a cocktail hour begin at 6 p.m. followed by a gourmet dinner at 7 p.m. During dinner, guests will enjoy live on-stage programming, silent and live auctions, and a paddle raise before a performance by tribute band Your Generation in Concert performing a live multimedia spectacular celebrating five decades of pop, rock, dance and R&B hits. .

Single tickets cost $300; one table for 10 guests costs $3,000. Sponsors receive numerous benefits depending on the donation amount, including advertisements, event-specific media coverage, and a personalized Lunch N’ Learn session hosted by AAoM professional staff at a chosen location. For information, visit the gala information page on the AAoM website.

Joseph Goral graduated from Oakland University in the summer of 2023 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Before his graduation, Joseph was a digital news intern at ClickOnDetroit and a contributing writer for The Oakland Post. When Joseph is not writing, you can usually find him watching Pistons basketball, playing with his dog Biggie, doing personal photography, and spending time with friends and family.

Photos courtesy AAoM.

Autism Alliance of Michigan was founded with the vision that people with autism will lead lives that meet their greatest potential. We lead efforts to raise expectations and expand opportunities for people touched by autism across the lifespan.

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