Sunderland autistic man to be honored today

SUNDERLAND — Whether he is working at Valley Bookcases in South Deerfield or in the garden center at Home Depot in Hadley, Jon Veal always works meticulously and thoroughly. The Sunderland native swims at the Greenfield YMCA in his downtime and volunteers in the Boy Scout Troop 11 in Northampton.

While Veal typically keeps a busy schedule and stays social, it wasn’t always that easy for the 32-year-old.

Veal has autism, a developmental disability that presents itself in early childhood and is characterized by difficulty in communicating, language and making social relationships.

Growing up, autism was far less prevalent and Veal was the only student in the Frontier Regional School District to have autism.

Through his own hard work and the vigilance of Veal and his parents, Barbara and Elvery Veal, he has managed to overcome much of his disability.

On Friday, Community Resources for People with Autism will honor Veal with a lifetime achievement award at the Log Cabin in Holyoke.

The Easthampton-based group — dedicated to providing support, information, and practical help for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and their families in western Massachusetts — is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Keynote speakers include Dr. Robert Naseef, a psychologist who has practiced for more than 20 years, specializing in helping families of children with disabilities, and Dena Gassner, who talks about her own experience with autism.

The ceremony coincides with Autism Awareness Month in April. Today is World Autism Awareness Day.

Veal will be the first in Community Resources’ history to receive a lifetime achievement award. In the past, the group has given awards to teachers and organizations in the community.

“I’ve known Jon since he was 6 years old. He was one that was challenged by his autism and he’s had his ups and downs over the years, but I’ve seen him make such progress,” said Jan Doody, the director of Community Resources.

The Veal family was part of a group of families that founded Community Resources in 1989.

The Veals had moved from New York to Deerfield when Jon was 4. The year before, Veal was diagnosed with autism in Syracuse.

“When we moved here, we didn’t know anyone, so I picked up the phone to get information,” Barbara Veal said.

Veal quickly became a member of a local western Massachusetts chapter of the Autism Society of America, which met in Springfield.

A friend of the group also worked for the Department of Developmental Services and she obtained a grant to fund the creation of Community Resources. The parents of the local Autism Society chapter each became board members.

Veal was at the forefront of special education inclusion in schools.

“With a lot of hard work and support, he’s come a long way,” Barbara Veal said.

Veal did not speak until he was 4.

When the Veals arrived in Franklin County, autism was less well-known and the Frontier Regional School district had few resources for children with autism. Veal was the only student with autism at the time.

With Veal in mind, the district’s special education director applied for a grant to pay for a consultant. Veal attended kindergarten at the First Congregational Church in Sunderland and was integrated into the regular school program. The year the new Sunderland Elementary School opened, Veal began first grade.

At 16, Veal’s parents created a program at Frontier and hired consultants to work with their son. Veal also became involved with a jobs program at United Arc in Turners Falls, where he obtained jobs as a park ranger on Mount Sugarloaf and worked at a local dry cleaners.

At 22, Veal moved out of his parents’ house into a farmhouse in Plainfield. It was then he really began to gain independence and come into his own.

He now participates in an adult foster care program, where he has his own apartment in Shelburne.

“This is pretty special,” Barbara Veal said, referring to the award. “He’s not the same kid he was 25 years ago.”

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