FORT LEE, Va. (March 10, 20110 -Fort Lee Army Community Service recently launched two new support groups for parents, relatives and friends of individuals who have a family member with an Autism Spectrum diagnosis or a diagnosis of intellectual disabilities or chromosome anomalies.

Army Community Service has been in the business of supporting families for more than 40 years and as the organization grew, so did the number of programs and services offered. As community needs are identified ACS works to create support programs. The organization's Exceptional Family Member Program rolled out an Autism Support Group last fall and began offering an I CAN Support Group in January.

The Autism Support Group meets monthly and has created a community of networks for parents facing the challenges of raising children with special needs, said Judy Eoff, EFMP manager. The group is approximately 10 members strong and meets once a month. Eoff says the majority of individuals reside in family housing and that makes it easy for the group to maintain support lines between meetings.

"They've built a support system outside of the group for one another," Eoff said. "A couple of our parents have older children who have been on the Autism Spectrum so they've been doing this a long time. They are really experienced with special education processes at schools, and they are familiar with having to relocate and start all over again. Yet some of the other participants are just starting their journey. They've just recently gotten a diagnosis, and it's the first time they've dealt with this. So it's almost as if they have partnered up with one another. I didn't think it would work out this way, but almost exclusively one experienced parent has partnered with an inexperienced member, and there is kind of a mentorship program developing."

Eoff facilitates the support group but doesn't dictate the group's agenda. The participants have a voice in what topics the group discusses. However the group is a coping mechanism for some members.

"They just want to be with one another," Eoff said. "Unless you are one of those parents, you don't really know what it is like to wear their shoes. You have to be with a group of parents who have experienced the same things you have so you can relate to each other."

The new I-CAN Support Group has yet to draw participants. Eoff hopes getting the word out will open doors for parents looking for support or resources. Parents of children with intellectual disabilities or chromosome anomalies are eligible to attend the meetings that are offered monthly at ACS. Intellectual disability is sometimes referred to as cognitive disability.

In addition to the support groups, ACS has a resource library with books, DVDs and toys that work well with children on the autism spectrum. Group participants often serve as reviewers for the new items that arrive.

Amber Parris, mother to a 6-year-old child on the spectrum has found the group to be exactly what she needed and cathartic.

"It's been helpful to have people who know what I am going through," Parris said. "It's good to hear the input of others when I am experiencing things a regular parent wouldn't have to handle. Sometimes you need a different outlook on a situation and being able to speak freely about our situation helps you learn different ways to handle things."

This is the first autism support group Parris has been a member of, and she is finding it fits the bill of what she needs, which is what Eoff hoped to offer to community members.

"We are all supportive of one another and welcome new members because we can all learn so much from one another," she said.

The next meeting for the Autism Support Group is March 16, 6-8 p.m. and the next I-CAN Support Group meets March 23, 6-8 p.m. Both meetings are held in the ACS Conference Room, building 9023.