Virginia Beach sisters work as public servants, autism advocates

Capt. Shannon Wichtendahl and Cpl. Coleen McCauley founded Autism Buddies in 2008. Over the course of a year, they are able to help 200 families impacted by autism. (Courtesy of Shannon Wichtendahl)

VIRGINIA BEACH — As a Project Lifesaver police officer, Capt. Shannon Wichtendahl had been working with autistic children and their families for quite some time when she got an idea.

What if she could set up a monthly play date between children with autism spectrum disorder and other Virginia Beach students?

The monthly event would serve a dual purpose: To let children play and socialize with kids their same age, and to let parents have a few hours alone to run errands or grab dinner out.

And so, with help from her sister, Coleen McCauley, the Virginia Beach Police officer founded Autism Buddies in January 2008.

Wichtendahl first had the idea for Autism Buddies in 2007 when she was hosting her a birthday party for her then 12-year-old daughter Taylor.

At that time, she was working with five Project Lifesaver families. A national electronic tracking program, Project Lifesaver outfits people who have a penchant for wandering away with a GPS device that makes it easier for police to find them if they get lost.

Those eligible for Project Lifesaver equipment include people with Alzheimer’s, and those on the autism spectrum.

As a Project Lifesaver officer, Wichtendahl was responsible for visiting families in their homes, checking up on their tracking equipment and making sure their devices had fresh batteries.

But she soon found that her sense of duty to the Project Lifesaver families went beyond the few minutes she was supposed to spend in their homes.

“I noticed a lot of my parents — some were single parents, others were parents with somebody in the military — and for those parents, having to find time to do some of the things they needed to was very difficult,” Wichtendhal said. “I was watching their children to give them a break so they could go get some basic stuff done.”

Today, Autism Buddies allows up to 20 children on the autism spectrum to have a monthly play date with 20 volunteer children, who are not on the spectrum, at the Bounce House in Virginia Beach.

Over the course of a year, Autism Buddies is able to help about 200 children make connections and get out and play.

The Bounce House, 829 Lynnhaven Parkway, is an indoor playground filled with trampolines and inflatable toys. Through private donations, Wichtendahl pays about $250 to completely rent out the Bounce House on the last Sunday of every month. She said it’s important for those participating in Autism Buddies to have privacy so the children are comfortable and volunteers can safely work through any situation that might arise.

Parents who bring their autistic children to participate are free to stay or go. The children are chaperoned by volunteers, including deputies from the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office where McCauley’s  a corporal.

Although the desire to give families impacted by autism a chance to refresh was the inspiration for Autism Buddies, founding the nonprofit has come with a few “unintended consequences,” Wichtendahl said.

For example, because of their increased exposure to autistic children, the kids who volunteer with Autism Buddies often bring that knowledge back to their public schools. They’re able to form relationships with students they might not have interacted with before, and stop other children from bullying their classmates, Wichtendahl said.

“Most kids are incredibly compassionate,” McCauley said of the children volunteers.

McCauley said another unintended consequence of participating in Autism Buddies is the hands-on training it gives to first responders who volunteer. She said members of the VBSO are able learn how to communicate with the autistic children, who are sometimes nonverbal, and deescalate them if they are having a problem, which are good skills to have when working in the Virginia Beach Correctional Center.

Autism Buddies is a free program. To attend an Autism Buddies event, sign up through the Autism Society of America, Tidewater.

Did you know that April 2 is World Autism Day?

On Monday, several Virginia Beach buildings will be decked out in blue lights to raise awareness for more than 70 million people living with autism spectrum disorder. The event marks the sixth year that Virginia Beach is participating in World Autism Awareness Day and Autism Awareness Month.

Look for the blue lights at the following buildings:

  • The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center
  • Virginia Beach Convention Center Tower
  • Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art
  • The Law Enforcement Memorial
  • The light garden at Princess Anne Commons Gateway Park
  • The Wave Sculpture
  • The Municipal Center
Want to participate? Swap your own light bulbs at home for ones that shine blue, wear a blue t-shirt or accessories on Monday, turn your social media profile picture blue and post a picture of yourself holding the “Light It Up Blue” selfie sign on social media.

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Adrienne Mayfield is an award-winning, multi-media journalist hailing from Clermont, Fla. She moved to Lynchburg, Va. on a whim when she was 19, and worked her way to Hampton Roads in 2013. Adrienne is passionate about telling people stories via covering public safety and the judicial system. She isn’t afraid to take a heads-on approach to covering crime, including knocking on doors to get the details police aren’t sharing. Adrienne is a 2014 Old Dominion University graduate who still lives within walking distance of the college. You may see her cruising around Downtown Norfolk on her bike, enjoying a sandwich from Grilled Cheese Bistro or playing fetch with her dog, Greta, at the Colonial Place dog park.