KINGSTON — Light It Up Blue, an annual autism-awareness event, has grown into a fun community celebration this year, featuring live bands, food trucks and vendors on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre.

Carol McGrane, director of Graham Academy, said in an interview at the lower school on Friday that the academy partnered with King’s College, Wilkes University and Misericordia University to make this year’s event more community-oriented and bigger and better than ever.

Graham Academy provides educational and social programming for over 200 students with various disabilities including autism, intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbance, from kindergarten through age 22 at a lower school in Kingston and an upper school in Luzerne. Academy staff began having awareness events in April, World Autism Awareness Month, in 2021. The name of the event is based on the color blue representing autism awareness.

“We went a little bit above and beyond this year,” Crane said, noting that the highlighted activity in previous years focused on selected students spending a day with Wilkes-Barre city officials as honorary mayor, council member, police chief and fire chief for the day.

That will take place April 26, she said.

“This year, my goal was to bring awareness and acceptance to the autism community, so, I wanted to make it a little bit bigger so that we can bring resources to families and we can have a day of events where our students and families can participate,” McGrane said.

Light It up Blue kicks off with a 5K Walk at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 27, beginning and ending on Public Square. Registration for the walk is $25 and the first 250 to register will receive a free commemorative T-shirt.

Midnight Rhythm Section will take the stage at noon, followed by Justin Bravo and the Kind at 1:30 p.m. and Rainbridge at 3 p.m. Ben Hartranft, an adult with autism who gives motivational talks nationally through his Benergy organization, will be the guest speaker at 4 p.m. A Johnny Cash tribute band will take the stage at 4:30 p.m., and The Jimmy Band will begin playing at 6 p.m.

“We’re also going to have multiple vendors there, and we’re going to have resources for the community and family members, for parents who don’t know what kind of resources are out there for them,” Crane said.

Proceeds from the 5K walk will go to the Moment of Magic Foundation chapter at Misericordia University; proceeds from candle sales will go to SAFE — Supporting Autistic Families Everywhere; and proceeds from T-shirt sales will go to Challenger Baseball, a league for children with physical and intellectual challenges.

Celebrating differences

Asked what the general public should know about people with autism, Bob Steinberger, program supervisor at Graham Academy, pointed to the words on a puzzle piece sign with this year’s theme: “What makes you different is what makes you amazing.”

“We celebrate differences of individuals living with autism. Neurologically, their brain works differently than a neurotypical individual’s,” Steinberger said. “But, we all have our own quirks and mannerisms and we need to help the public understand that they may need some different accommodations, but they have a lot to offer to this world and to our community.”

Upper school students Angel Pietri and Hunter Snyder designed this year’s puzzle piece design and theme, respectively.

McGrane said the primary purpose of the event is to bring awareness to the autism community.

“When I first started working at the Graham Academy (in 2008), 1 in 88 students were diagnosed with autism. Now, the population has become 1 out of 36, and I think it’s a population that is misunderstood. I think people just don’t understand what being on the spectrum is, and we want more awareness and acceptance of our community,” McGrane said.

Given the fact that more families have children with an autism diagnosis, advocates need to know how they can better support the families, and McGrane hopes they will attend the event.

“When a child gets diagnosed with autism, it’s almost like it’s a bad thing. But, it really isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a matter of the amount of resources you have behind you to help you and support you. It’s a good thing, because it’s what makes you different, and that’s the message we really we want to send,” McGrane said.

“We don’t want families to think that there’s nothing out there if their child is diagnosed. We want them to know there are schools like us, not just the Graham Academy, and there are resources out there that can help them. We just want to bring those resources to them,” she added.

Corey Koons, special education coordinator, said the school focuses on students’ strengths.

“With other placements, they might be kind of pushed into the back corner and passed through. We celebrate their strengths and put the spotlight on them. We do things like a talent show, where they wouldn’t be allowed to participate in that in other places. We do a science fair. We do World Discovery Day where we bring the community and families in to see the students’ work, because they’re just as capable as a typical general education student. They all have strengths and they all have something to offer everybody,” Koons said.

McGrane said she hopes for a big community turnout for the event.

“It’s not just a day for people with special needs,” McGrane said. “It’s a day for everybody to be part of a program that supports our special needs population in the community.”