An interview with Jennifer Sollars-Miller, co-founder of Autism Center of Tulsa

When her son was diagnosed with autism, Sollars-Miller responded by starting Autism Center of Tulsa (ACT).

With Mother’s Day being this month, we want to highlight one exceptional mom who is making a difference – not only in her own family, but for many families around Tulsa. Jennifer Sollars-Miller, co-founder of the Autism Center of Tulsa (ACT), recognized the need to provide a community resource shortly after her son was diagnosed with autism. Since starting the center, she has seen first-hand how the resources and programs offered by the ACT have significantly benefited local families. The center is funded through private donations which are running short. Currently, they are looking for financial donations in order to continue to provide crucial support and care to those families and community members affected by autism spectrum disorder.

TK: What prompted you to start the Autism Center of Tulsa?

Jennifer: Helping individuals and families affected by disabilities became my passion and purpose after my first child, Josh, was born. Having a child with special needs kept me crazy busy with doctors’ appointments, hospital stays, therapy and research. In 2005, Josh, who is diagnosed with autism, had just started kindergarten when I met another mother, Michelle Wilkerson, who was on a similar journey as mine. Between the two of us, we had gathered a library of information pertaining to autism. The stacks of paper around my house were insane. Physicians started referring families to us (separately) when they diagnosed a child with autism. We decided there was a great need for an organization in Tulsa to help families navigate the maze of autism.

TK: What resources does ACT offer?

Jennifer: When we started the ACT, state agencies did not provide autism services in the Tulsa area. We provided a resource library, parent workroom, parent consultations, workshops and special events. As our boys have grown, so have the needs of our families. We currently focus on the national program we created in 2014 – Autism Friendly Locations (AFL/A-OK). This program offers the I’M A-OK™ autism safety identification for individuals with autism, sensory sacks/toolkits for families and businesses, training for emergency responders, and consulting to make businesses and organizations autism-friendly.

TK: Why do you feel it is an important resource in our community?

Jennifer: According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 children is affected by autism. The significant safety concerns must be proactively addressed to help this vulnerable population.

Families affected by autism face many challenges, but one of the most debilitating is the process of taking their loved one out in public. A simple trip to the grocery store, a nearby restaurant, or ball game is never simple for families affected by autism. With proper identification (wearing the I’M A-OK logo™), individuals with autism will be recognized as having a disability and will be treated with the same understanding and respect as others. In addition, it will add a layer of protection in situations where people may misinterpret their behavior.

AFL/A-OK helps to create environments that foster teachable moments and allow families to prosper. We help families resume activities that improve their quality of life, preserve the family structure, and create independence for individuals with autism.

AFL/A-OK bridges the gap between families in need and the community where they live. This creates a supportive environment in which they feel welcome. With proper identification, repetition, and support, these outings become part of a family’s routine – each outing becoming easier and more predictable.

TK: What is your involvement with collegiate and professional sports teams?

Jennifer: Sporting venues have become one of the most sought-after autism friendly locations. We have forged partnerships with many local sports organizations such as Oklahoma State University Athletic Department, Tulsa Drillers, and Tulsa Oilers.

On a national level, the Seattle Seahawks became our first professional football team to launch the AFL/A-OK program in October, 2015. Since then, we have been in the process of implementing similar programs for other professional teams. NFL Headquarters contacted us this year and invited us to partner with them for the 2017 Pro Bowl in Orlando. The launch was so successful that they are already talking about making the 2018 Super Bowl autism-friendly!

The partnership entails providing complimentary I’M A-OK Sensory Sacks to individuals with autism to distribute at home games. The teams make the Sensory Sacks available at Guest Services for easy pick-up prior to the game. The team organizations promote the program through their media channels and run a PSA during the game. We (ACT) contact local emergency response agencies and stadium security to educate them about the meaning and purpose of the I’M A-OK logo.

TK: Can you share a success story about how someone benefitted from Autism Friendly Locations?

Jennifer: Just one? I have two that stand out in my mind. 1) When launching Autism Friendly Locations at a Seattle Seahawks game, a father came up to us, with tears in his eyes, and said he had always dreamed of taking his son, diagnosed with autism, to a Hawks game. Now, with the right support and tools (provided by the partnership between AFL and the Seahawks), his dream is reality. It was a true heartwarming moment – a typical father who wanted to make life-long memories with his son.  2) At a Drillers game last summer, two children wandered away from their caregivers. Much like individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, children and adults with autism have a tendency to wander. The children were found within minutes of disappearing by security officers who recognized their I’M A-OK™ safety identification. Autism is an invisible disability which means there are no physical characteristics. Without identification, the children would have looked like any typical child. Both examples show how AFL/ A-OK is positively impacting families by providing a layer of safety protection for individuals with autism and providing supports/tools to make outings more meaningful  and successful.

TK: How can people get involved?

Jennifer: We would love to increase the number of corporate donations we receive annually. ACT is funded exclusively through private donations. The Autism Center of Tulsa is seeking funds to support the demand for our services that far outweigh our resources at this time. Donations received are used to provide much-needed autism safety identification, sensory sacks, and training for various agencies, groups, and businesses.

TK: What would like to share about your family?

Jennifer: I love my family dearly and am proud of the way each member has handled circumstances that are beyond our control and can be challenging at times. We are far from a typical family and my daughter, Reagan, has been a trooper. It’s not easy for a teenage girl to live with a 19-year-old brother who is developmentally 7 years old.  My husband and I are proud of the way she has already become an advocate for individuals with disabilities and has a heart of gold for those in need.

Much like other teenagers with autism, anxiety is one of Josh’s biggest challenges. He deals with anxiety by asking questions and needing answers. Sometimes I look at other families (at restaurants) and wonder what it would be like to sit through dinner without having to answer a hundred questions from Josh about which words are appropriate and which ones are not, consequences for bad behavior, and his endless requests to be sent to Dr. Phil if he misbehaves. Yes, Dr. Phil is one of his heroes. He loves rules and loves testing his boundaries. He’s funny, smart, and inquisitive. To be honest, I don’t know what I would do at someone else’s table, nor do I want to know. I feel I have the best seat right where I am. This is my “normal” and I can’t imagine it any other way.

TK: What activities does your family like to do together around Tulsa?

Jennifer: With the heightened awareness of the I’M A-OK™ autism identification, the increasing number of autism-friendly businesses and organizations, and the frequent sensory-friendly events in the Tulsa area, our family activity list has grown significantly. Thank you, Tulsa! Josh enjoys routine, so our family tends to do many of the same things over and over. We love going to sporting events where Josh can watch the scoreboard and clock, going to our regular restaurants where Josh knows the staff, and going to the park where Josh loves to swing and climb. We can’t wait to add the Gathering Place to our list of regular activities! His favorite activity of all is going to church on Sunday morning. Reagan understands our limitations as a family and often gets special one-on-one time with my husband and me. Her favorite spots include Barnes and Noble, Guthrie Green, 5K’s, Turkey Mountain, and the Melting Pot.

TK: Anything else you would like to share?

Jennifer: Individuals with autism can learn more appropriate behaviors, especially from families who view these outings as teachable moments. This effort requires the patience of family members, staff, patrons, and the public. We want to encourage and empower families to participate in life!

AND…For parents of children with autism…humor is required! We must laugh when we can and appreciate the small gains as they come. It is not a sprint, but a marathon. Enjoy the view and be mindful in the present. Take lots of notes pertaining to your child’s developmental milestones. One day, you’ll look back and realize just how far your child has come!