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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Every piece is essential

Virginia Lutherans help families puzzle out autism resources

Essential Pieces, a Lutheran Family Services of Virginia program, opened a "huge window" for Shelley Drago and her son, Camdyn, 4, diagnosed with autism last September.

Named for the pieces of a puzzle, it "[puts] the pieces together for the sake of our children," said James H. Utt, a pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Winchester, Va., where the program began in 2008.

Today, Essential Pieces offers eight-week evening sessions that connect parents of autistic children with community resources and professionals. It helps parents become proactive in accessing occupational and physical therapy, vocational rehabilitation, advocacy in schools, sign language, diet, music and even horsemanship. While their parents are learning, children with autism and their siblings play games and sing songs in a social group.

Stephanie Doney, 10 (clockwise from
Stephanie Doney, 10 (clockwise from left), Teagan Bradley, 10, and Clara Doney, 7, take a break from a popular parachute activity offered by Lutheran Family Services of Virginia's Essential Pieces social groups. The groups provide activities for children on the autism spectrum and their "neurotypical" siblings, while their parents attend education sessions.

Camdyn loves to go and meet new friends, Drago said. Calling Essential Pieces "wonderful," she added, "And it's free for parents. It's the best organization I've been a part of. If the children are happy, that's everything."

Autism spectrum disorders, caused by brain abnormalities, have become more prevalent in the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism.

Utt said Essential Pieces gives parents a break and is a way the congregation can be a welcoming, safe place for families who have children with special needs.


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