SARATOGA SPRINGS – The fifth annual Autism Expo and Art Exhibit will take place at the Saratoga Springs City Center on Sunday, April 10. Presented by Saratoga Bridges, this free expo will feature fun family activities as well as over 70 vendors, ranging from recreational activities, camps, therapeutic programs, education opportunities and more.
“It started five years ago when several parents who have children on the autism spectrum had this dream of wanting to do an expo that gathers providers and programs in one place,” said Patty Paduano, Director of Family Support Services at Saratoga Bridges.
Saratoga Bridges then connected with Skidmore College to make that dream a reality. Rachel Mann Ph.D., a psychology professor at Skidmore College that teaches classes on developmental disabilities, helped to initiate the Autism Expo and now, has her students helping at the event.
While the first two expos took place at Skidmore College, the expo was eventually moved to the City Center because of space.
“That first year, we had no idea how many people would be there. Parking was crazy. We thought, ‘I think we’ve hit on something here,” said Paduano, who noted that last year nearly 700 people attended the event, with even more expected this year.
A unique aspect of the Autism Expo is the art exhibit portion of the event. Adults and children on the autism spectrum have created over 70 pieces of art that will be on display. The exhibit includes all mediums of artwork, from sculptures to paintings and drawings. “Our individuals do wonderful things out in the community, and art is one of the areas we really wanted to celebrate,” said Paduano.
January Slater, a local mom and artist, became involved in the Autism Expo through her own non-profit, Creative Kidz Café. This organization provides creative outlets for children both with and without autism through art, cooking, crafts, music, and movement, all in a safe, accepting environment.
“It’s all creative based, there is no true structure. It’s there for the children’s own self-expression and it gives them the space for that.” said Slater, who has partnered with Saratoga Bridges to host some of her Creative Kidz Café classes. “I love working with Saratoga Bridges because we have the same vision and mindset, and that is whatever is good for the families and the kids. For me, the art exhibit at the expo shows how the people that are involved in it really understand the importance of expression – it’s a way for them to communicate in a completely different way that is perhaps more natural for them.”
Slater knows from a first-hand perspective how important expression and creativity is for those with autism: her nine-year old son Jackson is also on the spectrum.
“I feel like there has been a lot of negative thoughts on the word ‘autism,’ said Slater. “People fear that word. For me, it’s about diminishing that fear and creating more of a loving and accepting world for these kids, because there are so many of them.”
Often, when parents find out their child has an autism spectrum disorder, they are confused, scared, and just want answers.
“Our community has to be able to embrace every family and we also want to provide families a place to turn to. That’s what is so great about the expo,” said Paduano. “Many parents feel lost, like they don’t know where to start after getting that diagnosis. The expo is a place where you can meet other parents, pick up brochures, and talk to professionals. It’s a place where families can come and get information without having to figure it out all on their own.”
While there will be a multitude of activities and vendors for children on the spectrum at the expo, the Autism Expo is an excellent source for adults with autism as well.
“There are a lot of adults on the spectrum, and once you’re getting adult services, it can be challenging,” added Paduano. This year, the expo has added two workshops aimed at adults living with autism: “Managing Stress” and “Getting and Keeping a Job.” There will also be colleges set up, including Adirondack Community College and Sage College, to provide information about their academic programs.
For children and their families, the Autism Expo will feature engaging activities from Spotted Zebra Learning Center, a bouncy house, and crafts, such as sand art, spin art and face painting, presented by Skidmore students. Vendors will be set up around the perimeter of the expo, with the family activities in the center, allowing parents to visit the vendors at their leisure while ensuring that their children are safe.
“As a parent, you strive for your child with autism to be part of a community that wants them there and makes them feel welcome,” concluded Slater. “To actually be in a community that has that understanding and has that compassion is something I am truly grateful for.”
The Autism Expo and Art Exhibit will take place from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 10 at the Saratoga Springs City Center, located at 522 Broadway. The expo is free and everyone is welcome to attend. For more information about the expo, or if you are interested in being a volunteer, visit saratogabridges.org.