Brittany Morgan and a young boy select a mood on an interactive white board at the Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio.
Brittany Morgan and a young boy select a mood on an interactive white board at the Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

When you think back to your childhood, you may have memories of rearranging sofa cushions, pillows, and furniture to create a blanket fort and spending hours nestled beneath the comforting darkness. When you think of a blanket fort that would break the Guinness Book of World Records’ current standing for the largest fort ever built you’ll need a large plot of land, hundreds of yards of PVC pipe, and more than 500 blankets.

Autism Uncovered is a community event created to bring awareness to the importance of early intervention and the growing need for autism services in San Antonio by building the world’s largest blanket fort. The event, which will take place at Toyota Field on Saturday, Nov. 18, will benefit the Autism Treatment Center, San Antonio’s oldest treatment center for autism established in 1978.

The Autism Treatment Center owns and operates seven residential group homes throughout San Antonio which are funded and licensed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and Texas Health and Human Services. In addition, the organization offers educational resources, services for adults on the autism spectrum, diagnostic evaluation, therapy, and community awareness outreach programs.

Ivy Zwicker, director of San Antonio’s Autism Treatment Center, told the Rivard Report that as autism has become a more prevalent diagnosis, the center has worked to grow its services in order to address both the increase and services across the lifespan.

“We are changing lives and building on their future,” Zwicker said. “We are taking someone who is struggling with their environment, their own body, and other people, and getting them to a place where they are more comfortable in the community.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that autism affects one in 68 children in the United States – one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls. An estimated 50,000 teens with autism transition into adulthood and lose school-based autism services each year.

Zwicker said when she started working at the Autism Treatment Center in 1998, the rate of diagnosis was closer to one in 750.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning a diagnosis may include a wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability and is caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences. Autism’s most-obvious signs tend to appear between 2 and 3 years of age. In some cases, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months.

Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges, and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors.

A table is surrounded by children with specialists working with each child at the Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
Specialists work closely with autistic children at the Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Autism Uncovered event is co-chaired by volunteers Lauren Conn, 22, and Isaac Shamas, 27, who connected with the Autism Treatment Center due to their mission of creating a more inclusive world. They approached the organization with the idea of creating the Guinness World Record-breaking blanket fort to raise awareness that people with disabilities can still contribute greatly to the world around them.

“Even though these [people] have autism, [that] doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the same opportunities that everyone else does,” Conn said.

Both Conn and Shamas have had their own experiences with perceived stigma and clinical diagnoses. Conn found the Autism Treatment Center when she was looking for volunteer opportunities during a time in her life when mental health issues prompted her to take a break from school. She was studying music with an emphasis on working with people with autism diagnoses.

Conn told the Rivard Report that when she spoke with her parents, friends, and teachers after receiving her diagnosis, she felt as though their attitudes and the way they communicated with her changed dramatically.

“I wasn’t Lauren anymore – people were referring to me as my diagnosis,” Conn said. “I want people to understand that everyone is their own person, and a diagnosis shouldn’t label who you are.”

Conn, who wears a button that reads “I am Autism friendly,” said she wants to inform others that people with an autism diagnosis – or any mental or physical diagnosis – need love, support, and social interactions just like everyone else.

A child looks at a colorful mural during an outdoor activity at a playground designed with autistic needs in mind at the Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
A boy looks at a colorful mural at a playground designed with autistic needs in mind at the Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Autism Uncovered organizers are partnering with AccessAbility fest, an event that brings together nearly 100 organizations and businesses to highlight the services they provide and share information, resources, ideas, and support among people with all types of disabilities.

The fest also aims to advance public attitudes, awareness, respect, and considerations for the success of people with diagnosed disabilities.

After the blanket fort is complete, the PVC pipe used will be donated to Habitat for Humanity. The blankets will go to Haven for Hope.

The Autism Treatment Center is still looking for blanket donations and volunteers to help construct the blanket fort. More than 100 volunteers will be needed on Friday, Nov. 17 to help construct the PVC pipe frame for the blanket fort. About 200 volunteers will be needed on Saturday, Nov. 18 to help build the blanket fort and assist with the resource fair for participants and their families.

For more information on how to get involved, click here.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the Rivard Report.