WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — For children and adults on the autism spectrum, learning social skills is an important way to feel connected to their peers and the community.
The Autism Project has a number of programs to help them do just that through sports, music, expressive creativity and more. This year they are celebrating 25 years of assisting people of all ages on the spectrum.
Chris Zimmerly, 24, was one of the first Rhode Islanders to receive services from the Autism Project when he was just 2 and 1/2 years old. Now he’s working as a coffee barista in Warwick.
“Chris had all kinds of food allergies, had very limited to no eye contact” his mother Roberta Zimmerly said.
Twenty-two years ago Roberta knew her son wasn’t hitting development markers and when he was first diagnosed with autism she said she felt alone and unsure of her next steps. That was until they were introduced to the Autism Project.
“I felt very hopeful after the 9-week starting point training here that I could move freely through school,” Roberta said. “I felt very empowered.”
Throughout the years, Chris was able to receive services and Roberta was able to connect with other families. She recalls summers when her son would attend the Autism Project’s summer program Camp Wannagogain.
“Chris would be ready at 7 a.m. slathered head to toe in sunscreen waiting at the door ready to go to camp,” Roberta said.
If you ask Chris, he will tell you his favorite connections he has made through the organization.
“Spending time with friends in the compass program at West Bay Collaborative and seeing some friends from Hendricken and the Special Olympics,” he explained.
What Chris has been able to achieve outside the walls of the Autism Project is what has made his life full of small joys and purpose.
“He has the richest life,” Roberta said. “He starts the day off with playing the piano every morning, he’s reached out to his piano teacher, he has a personal trainer that has helped him lose two pant sizes, and he cooks every night.”
“Yeah, I’m a good barista!” Chris added.
One of his greatest joys is making hundreds of specialty coffee drinks a week at a Warwick Starbucks. His mother says he “literally memorized the bible of coffee.”
“My favorite thing to drink is the brown sugar shaken espresso,” Chris said.
He is so good at whipping up drinks that he has even trained some of the employees on new drinks when they are launched.
“He has rewarding work and I can’t say enough about that being the best part for Chris, that has worked on his self-esteem, to feel needed,” his mother explained.
“The kindness, the not having to explain when you’re having a hard day because they’ve walked that same walk that you have, it means everything to me,” she added.
Families like the Zimmerly’s will finally be able to gather again for the 20th annual Imagine Walk on April 24 at Goddard Park.