Cullman group supports families with special needs


CULLMAN – For families of those with special needs, Cullman has help and support in the form of the Cullman Autism and Special Needs Family Support Group.  Founded in 2003 by Rhonda Davis (the group's current leader), Jessica Dyson and Jo Keeton, the group’s mission is to support, educate and help others on their unique and individual journeys.  Starting as an Autism support group, the founders discovered others who needed help; so over the years the group has grown to more than 120 families with a variety of special needs.  Today, they partner with Flourish of Cullman and the Cullman City Parks and Recreation Therapeutic Recreation program.

Group co-leader Sarah Bates shared, “Support and helping is important because many who walk our journeys can feel overwhelmed at times and feel like nobody understands our circumstances.  Many special needs families have received unsolicited comments from people who just ‘don’t get it.’  Sure, most people have good intentions, but it is hard for them to comprehend our circumstances.  Our support group provides a safe, loving and caring outlet for parents to share with others who ‘get it.’  It’s a place where we can celebrate milestones that typical families don’t have to fathom.  It’s a place where nobody judges.  It’s a place where you hear ‘I remember when my kids did the same thing’ and you feel a sense of relief.

“Educating is important.  It can be extremely difficult to navigate insurance, schools, doctors, care options and more.  We often have speakers provide information to help with different topics of importance and interest.  We also advocate and bring awareness to special needs to prevent families from being left behind.”

When asked what people need to know about the group or its members, Bates decided to pose that question to other members.  Below are some of the answers that came back. 

“Don't think people with special needs can't learn, live and work in our community.”

“I wish people would ask how to best communicate with Kaden before they just start asking him questions he is never going to answer.”

“My favorite quote is from the book 'Big Words for Little People' by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell, which is: ‘Different means nobody's ever the same. All bodies are different and so are all brains. Different is what makes this world great. Different is never something to hate.’”

“Just because we look ‘normal’ it doesn't mean we aren't a special needs person. Don't judge the outward appearance.”

“Advice is great if it is solicited and if it is given as a kindness. Observations voiced are really not too helpful as we as the parent, surely already know what you may have just discovered.”

“I want people to understand that less words is best and when talking to me and my son, Jordan, it is okay to ask him instead of me. Many times, we are too wordy in our statements and questions. Individuals with special needs require more time to process what you are saying. If we would slow down and limit our words, they will understand and you can have a meaningful conversation with someone with special needs and you will be better for it.”

“We all want the same things: to be involved, to be happy, excited, asked our thoughts, wants, needs, goals.  Stop and take time to smell the roses.  Get to know a special needs person.  See the world from their point of view.”

“I don't really care what the question is, I just want people to ask.  I love to talk about my children just like every other mom.  As long as people are asking from a place of kindness and wanting to understand my child, I'm happy to answer.”

“I think if more people took the time to get to know my family they would see that my son is a sweet little boy who just has some extra challenges and I may be more tired or stressed than others, but I'm still a mom who is trying her best to raise her children to be good, healthy and well-adjusted adults.”

“My favorite quote ‘Normal is a dryer setting.’”

The Cullman Autism and Special Needs Family Support Group has quite a few events coming up just in the next couple of months:


  • Dairy Queen north Cullman location, Saturday March 25 from 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; and Dairy Queen south Cullman location, Sunday Mar 26 from 11 a.m.-8 p.m.  The group will have a table set up at the entrance; please take a card and hand it to the cashier, no additional cost to customers.
  • Bojangles, Tuesday, April 4 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; mention you support autism awareness.
  • Chick-fil-A, Thursday, April 27 from 4 – 8 p.m.  Mention you support autism awareness and write down your amount paid on the clipboard at the register.

Group meetings and events

  • Monday Night Swims at the Cullman Wellness & Aquatic Center from 6-8 p.m. on March 20, 27; April 3, 10, 17, 24.  Free swim for all with disabilities and their family members.  Sign in at front desk.
  • Thursday Bowling Nights at the Bowling Center, 1710 Tally Ho Street, Cullman from 5-7 p.m. on April 13 and 27.  Free to all with disabilities, $5 for other family members.  Wear good gripping shoes. RSVP REQUIRED!
  • Glow Bowl at the Bowling Center, 1710 Tally Ho Street, Cullman, Sunday, March 19, 7-9 p.m. $5 per person with disabilities, $8 for other family members/friends bowling with our group.
  • Monthly meeting at Margaret Jean Jones Center, 1807 Beech Ave. SW, Cullman, Saturday, April 1, 5-7 p.m.  Family fellowship and meal time!
  • Walk and 5K for Autism, Saturday, April 8, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. at Heritage Park.  There will be bounce houses, BBQ, special needs information vendors, kite flying and more.  Sponsorship packets available – request to be mailed or emailed.  Call Rhonda at 256-962-2208 or Sarah at 256-338-1301.
  • Miracle League Easter Egg Hunt, Wednesday, April 12, 5:30 p.m., Field of Miracles, Cullman Parks and Recreation Therapeutic Recreation event.
  • Special Needs Prom, Tuesday, April 18, 6-8 p.m., Cullman Civic Center, Therapeutic Recreation Event.

For more information on the Cullman Autism and Special Needs Family Support Group, contact representatives at the phone numbers listed in the schedule, or visit the group on Facebook at

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Image from one of last summer's sensory-friendly movie events, courtesy of member Sarah Bates.