Julie Ann Palermo’s 10-year-old son, Paulie, who is on the autistic spectrum, is the inspiration for her extraordinary project. Palermo, who has been doing a lesson in his classroom for the last four years, will spearhead a parent outreach program for kindergarten through fifth grade at Thomas Paine Elementary in the Urbana School District. The goal is simple: To educate students about autism and autism acceptance.
Palermo is married to Mark Palermo, who works in the medical field. They also have another son, Eddie.
See why we think Julie Ann Palermo is a Chambana Mom to Know
Q: Tell us briefly about your son who has autism and his journey.
We are a loving family of four that is originally from western Pennsylvania. Mark’s job is what brought us to the Champaign-Urbana area. Prior to taking on being a full time mom, I was a Title I Reading Specialist for 10 years. Our autism journey began in Pennsylvania. Paulie was 2 1/2 years old when we received his diagnosis of autism. After receiving the diagnosis we started with early intervention services. Shortly after, we moved to Champaign-Urbana. We quickly became aware of the lack of support services in the area. I was put into contact with Linda Tortorelli of TAP (The Autism Program) and then the hunt began. Linda and TAP provided us with such extraordinary support and guidance.
We then started with other interventions, such as Floortime: The P.L.A.Y Project; PECS: The U of I Speech and Hearing Clinic; Occupational and Speech Services from Carle Foundation Hospital; and ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis): Circles Behavior Consultation Services out of Bloomington.
We have attended Urbana Early Childhood School as well as Little Hearts and Hands. We have had horse-riding therapy through Stanton Stables but now we have just continued (graduated) to riding lessons through Darren Woller Horsemanship of Urbana.
Q: How are you helping your son’s peers understand autism? What results have you seen from the program?
The results of the lessons are amazing! The students are asking questions and providing their own experiences with someone they know with autism. They are so inquisitive and now seem to have the knowledge to really help and become the missing piece to unlock the wonders within their peers on the spectrum.
This is my first attempt of implementing the parent outreach education on autism school wide. I am loving it! I would be willing to entertain the idea of branching out to other schools, etc.
Q: You are now moving forward with a parent outreach program. What does the program involve, and will you be doing it in other places?
I am currently conducting autism and autism acceptance lessons in grades K-5 at Thomas Paine Elementary School within the Urbana School District. This is a part of the parent-outreach program through the CU Autism Network, a local non-profit group that has formed to provided support and services for people that are diagnosed with ASD, as well as the autism community within the Champaign-Urbana area. I have been going into my son’s classroom for the past three years and just recently received approval to conduct the lessons school-wide. I help my son’s peers as well as the other students throughout the school understand the meaning of autism, behaviors they may encounter, ways of communication, how to build relationships and increase interactions as well as reminding them that everyone is different and that we should embrace diversity.
Q: With the state’s financial struggles affecting students that serve children with autism, how has that impacted the community in C-U?
The state’s recent financial struggles affecting agencies that serve children with autism is an ongoing process. We have to fundraise and count on the generous donations from the people throughout the community to keep the agencies/services open. If you would like to support/volunteer/donate please contact: Sheryl McKibben (217-433-3246), or Linda Tortorelli, coordinator of the autism program at the University of Illinois (217-244-0928).
Q: What do you wish others knew about children with autism?
I wish others knew that children with autism are amazing! They see the world so differently. Autism is only one thing about them — it does not define them. They are just like other kids and they want to be accepted, included and liked. With education, good communication, patience and collaborative support from teachers, parents and their peers, amazing things can happen!
Q: What are some of your favorite things to do with your sons when you’re out and about?
Our favorites things to do as a family are swimming, hiking, going to the beach, going to Illini sporting events, watching movies and spending time outside, either riding bikes/scooters or sitting around the fire.
Q: If your family had to leave Champaign-Urbana, what’s the first thing you would miss?
If we had to leave Champaign-Urbana the first things we would miss are the friendships we have built, the community and the genuine sense of caring for our children within the schools.