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Autism Heroes: Ann Palmer

Hero: Ann Palmer, advocate, Cary, North Carolina

Nominator quote: “The knowledge, support and direction I’ve gained from Ann with every encounter has allowed me to raise my own child with autism in a more relaxed and thoughtful manner.”

Over the last 20 years, Ann Palmer has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of families get the autism services and support that they need. Palmer has an adult son with autism. She began working in the field when her son, now 33, was about 9 years old. One of her first roles was as a research assistant in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill TEACCH Autism Program. She later became the parent support coordinator, where she created a parent mentorship program that connected families. Families with a new autism diagnosis were introduced to veterans experienced in accessing community services. “Trying to connect parents feeling isolated or lost to their community — that’s what I have done for most of my career,” Palmer says.

Palmer then became the director of chapters and advocacy for the Autism Society of North Carolina. She coordinated 50 groups across the state and helped to launch new chapters in rural communities. One such spot was the Outer Banks, a string of peninsulas and islands along North Carolina’s coast. The location meant that some families had to drive an hour to get to meetings. So Palmer and the chapter leadership helped to organize respite care. “Those groups would start small and then grow bigger and bigger as word got out,” Palmer says. Some of the chapters that Palmer helped launch evolved into large groups that now help fund autism programs. These include summer camps, after-school programs and respite care.

Palmer is now the family faculty member at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at UNC. She helps train graduate students in disciplines including physical therapy, public health, psychology, nursing and occupational therapy. Each year, Palmer recruits a few family members of people with autism to participate in the program. They take the course on developmental disabilities and undergo leadership training.

These individuals help other students understand the community that the students will one day serve. “Parents speak up about their own experiences and what they know about advocating for their kids,” Palmer says. “Students are surprised by the day-to-day level of advocacy that parents have to do.” The family perspective also gives students insight into the complex web of care. “Professionals often don’t communicate with each other,” Palmer says. “An occupational therapist might never have been to an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting. Students leave the program realizing the need for communication not just with the family but with each other.”

For parents who lack nearby support groups, Palmer suggests starting at school. “There are probably other parents within the school who are also interested in connecting. Have one meeting and try to get the word out,” she says. “Even if it’s two moms sitting together and talking, it’s worth the effort.”