During the month of April, the world celebrates Autism Month. Countries, organizations, and supporters raise awareness and provide opportunities to increase support and understanding for people with autism. In the Bahamas, there are many persons who have become ambassadors for this cause. One such person is Veola Sophia Simms-Stewart, a high-school business educator and church member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Her journey began when she and her husband learned that their son was on the autism spectrum.

"Shawn was diagnosed at the age of three,” Stewart said. “We noticed that he was not developing as other children would. So even currently at this time, Shawn speaks. But he says in limited words, and he says it when he wants to.”

Stewart soon found support in a local organization called REACH which is the Bahamas’ resource and educational source for Autism and other related challenges. This non-profit organization provides support groups for families along with tools to assist individuals with autism. Local Pediatrician Dr. Dashawn Saunders, who is a consultant for REACH and works with children who are diagnosed with autism, said REACH has become a pivotal asset for many families in The Bahamas.

“It was actually started by a group of parents who noted that their kids had features, and some were diagnosed with autism. And they realized in The Bahamas we didn't have a lot of resources, education for the kids,” said Saunders. Stewart and her husband soon found themselves as advocates of Autism awareness in their church. She was also impressed by God to take a step further in faith.

“Recently in 2021, God…inspired me to start my doctorate degree. So, I'm actually studying leadership and special education,” Stewart said. Stewart now encourages other church members to be more supportive of those with autism. “I would like our church as a whole, number one, to even acknowledge that we do have persons with special needs. And even…when we have things like education day…include them all the time… they are our children and they are people too,” she admonished. It may be difficult for children on the autism spectrum to attend church services due to sensory overload, Stewart continues to keep her children engaged in church as often as possible even at home. 

Although the organization continues to help families like the Stewarts, according to Dr. Saunders, assistance is always welcome. “For kids that have autism, there is no cure, but there are therapies, and these therapies include things like speech therapy, behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, and all of this sometimes is not affordable,” said Saunders.

Dr. Dashawn Saunders being interviewed for a news feature on ATV 658 News 

For more information on becoming a volunteer for REACH and supporting autism awareness visit its headquarters located on Queens College Campus or call 242-328-4123.