TUPELO • Cassidy Hooper has always been a forceful advocate for the autism community.
As the president of the Arc of Northeast Mississippi Autism Now Division, a grassroots nonprofit supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Houlka and Houston native hopes to meet the need for others on the autism spectrum.
“I want to mentor and guide other individuals on the autism spectrum and kind of help them with resources and create resources,” the 27-year-old said.
The group encourages inclusion for all and advocates through member-to-member outreach. The Autism Now division was created to address the needs of people on the autism spectrum.
Hooper became involved with the Arc of Northeast Mississippi after executive director Cheryl Falzone reached out to her. The organization’s tagline is “achieve with us,” and Falzone said Hooper was a perfect advocate to stand with them and asked her to become involved.
“I was so honored, and it was so validating because I’m so passionate about the cause,” Hooper said.
As an adult with autism, Hooper knew firsthand the importance of being a self-advocate. At 17, she went to a psychiatrist and received a dual diagnosis for Asperger’s syndrome, which is now part of the broader category called autism spectrum disorder, and Turner’s syndrome.
Through personal experience, Hooper quickly realized there weren’t many resources for people with autism in Northeast Mississippi, and she wanted to help change that. That drive made Hooper a natural fit to be president of the Autism Now Division.
“We knew that there was a need, and Cassidy has the insight, the passion and the drive that we needed to fill that spot, so it’s a perfect fit, and she has experience on the inside,” Falzone said.
While the Autism Now Division aims its services at all ages, Hooper is especially passionate about helping adults with autism, where resources are often harder to find in Northeast Mississippi and often focus mainly on children.
“I think that needs to change,” Hooper said. “Autism in adulthood is not focused on much … so I really want to focus on that and programs and services for adults on the autism spectrum because autism doesn’t just end at 18. It’s throughout the lifespan. It’s a lifelong condition.”
Since launching nearly a year ago, the organization has been limited to mostly digital events. Hooper has primarily connected with others in the autism community through the Autism Now Division and Arc of Northeast Mississippi Facebook pages. In the future, she hopes to have in-person trainings, webinars and projects to help bolster outreach. As pandemic-related restrictions loosen, the Arc of NEMS will help Hooper more through events, including a few summer events where they can set up an information table with brochures.
For April, which is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, Hooper has created a Tell Me More series to discuss topics related to autism. The goal is to connect with people despite the challenges of the pandemic.
“I wanted to connect with people and share stories, ideas and experiences, touch on some topics that may be uncomfortable for the autism community but are so important to hear their perspectives and to hear their views on certain things that affect the autism community as a whole,” Hooper said.
Hooper said Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month plays an important role in helping individuals understand and accept people on the autism spectrum for who they are, “not because of their autism.”
“They can be contributors to society no matter if they have autism,” Hooper said. “That’s what acceptance is: accepting them into society despite their so-called disability, that they can do anything that anybody else can do.”
Hooper credited her own growth to meeting others in the autism community. Though she still struggles, Hooper said she’s happy she “can live a normal life just like anybody else with or without autism.”
“I met so many people, amazing individuals, through the autism community, and I’ve learned so much since I was diagnosed about myself and about autism, so it’s been a journey,” Hooper said. “I just want other individuals with autism to know that autism shouldn’t stop them from living their life, it doesn’t define them as an individual. It’s just a part of who they are, but it doesn’t change who they are.”