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Woodbury, Minn., women team up to help families living with autism

Lisa Valera, left, and Kristin Pruitt are co-founders of a new Woodbury-based support group called "Families Living with Autism." Staff photo by Riham Feshir

For Kristin Pruitt and Lisa Valera, celebrating the Fourth of July with family is not an easy thing. In fact, they usually just avoid it.

Pruitt's 12-year-old son was diagnosed eight years ago with autism that is triggered by noise, crowded spaces and hectic events. Johnathon is a monotone boy who's uncomfortable with hugging, expressing emotion and making eye contact.

On the other hand, Valera's 7-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who was diagnosed with autism nine months ago, is an outgoing, flamboyant type of girl. She gets touchy with strangers, which can sometimes be considered inappropriate, her mother said.

The two moms are dealing with different sides of the spectrum. They have plenty of things in common, but also a number of dissimilarities.

This September, Valera and Pruitt, co-founders of "Families Living with Autism," will meet on a regular basis in Woodbury as part of a support group they created to offer help and resources to others with the same diagnoses.

Pruitt pointed to two simple reasons for forming the group.

"Optimism. Hope," she said.

And, Valera said, "to be able to give the hope to the newbies."

"Your hopes and dreams are going to be dashed, but your child's hopes and dreams are not," she added.

From happy to absent

When he was just a toddler, Pruitt noticed that Johnathan wasn't doing the things his peers were doing. He was obsessed with things like Spin the Wheel and lining up cars. He would start to talk but then repeat things over and over.

Johnathon was never able to look people in the eye because he would either have to focus on making eye contact or think of what he was about to say. He was having trouble forming sentences.

"He kind of went from being a happy kid to just being absent," Pruitt said, adding, "I just kind of thought something was not quite right."

Still, the kid had a photographic memory.

But he faces challenges maintaining friendships due to his inability to keep a conversation. Family activities like birthday parties and big social settings are not an option for the Pruitts.

Texting each other numerous times a day and meeting for play dates and alternative activities that won't put their kids in uncomfortable situations, Pruitt and Valera found comfort in each other's friendships.

"We felt a relief just to be able to share with somebody else," Valera said.

Even if it's a simple text message like "OMG! Just had a tantrum."

Seven-year-old Alyssa would refuse to wear certain clothing with tags on them. She's not struggling with friendship so much because girls with Asperger's syndrome can have an easier time than boys in that area, Valera said.

Alyssa gets anxious, though, irritated in big, crowded, noisy settings - all symptoms that play a role in how her family plans their activities.

"Sometimes you try to be the normal family and you want to be the normal family but you can't always be," Valera said.

Both autistic kids tend to take things literally; their parents have to be careful using metaphors, fictional stories and all of the manipulation tools others use to discipline their children.

"As parents, you alter so much of what you say," Pruitt said.

Forming the group's roots

Valera met Pruitt three years ago when she moved just across the street in a Woodbury townhome association. She remembers joking with her and saying Pruitt sits around and complains there is no support for local families living with autism.

Which is why they decided to form the group.

Their first meeting has been pushed back from July to September to get more prepared and more speakers lined up.

Many have already contacted the duo via Facebook and a number of families are from outside of Woodbury, which prompted them to eliminate Woodbury from the title of the group.

"We didn't want to have a support group where families get together and let's just feel sorry for ourselves," Pruitt said.

They want to be able to give others information that helped Valera and Pruitt cope with diagnosis, treatment methods and just leading a happy lifestyle.

"We want to celebrate our kids. These are great kids," Pruitt said.

The support group will have an open house at 7 p.m. Sept. 13 at Woodbury United Methodist Church. Meetings will be held the second and fourth Tuesday of every month.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.