The best place to meet and interact with the Omaha autistic community is the Puzzle Walk sponsored by the Autism Society of Nebraska. The gem of Autism Awareness Month, the Puzzle Walk is your chance to meet other families, interact with their kids and learn about local vendors and organizations who support our community. Alex, Mindi and I attended our first Puzzle Walk last year and were blown away by the size and scope of the event, both the indoor entertainment and then the walk itself.
This year, the Puzzle Walk will be held on Saturday, April 14. The indoor play area will open at 9:00 AM, and the walk will start inside the arena at 11:00 AM.
Play First, Walk Later
Prior to the Puzzle Walk, the ASN provides an indoor playground for kids to enjoy on the main floor of the Ralston Arena. As you can see in the photos, there are plenty of blow-up playground attractions and slides. In 2017, the lines were short, and the kids had easy access to all of the facilities. There were also plenty of superheroes, clowns, magicians and other performers roaming the floor for picture opportunities or entertainment. You can find a seat in front of a stage on one end of the arena to listen to musicians, comedians and the ASN Awards Ceremony.
Along the main concourse you’ll find a number of concession stands for food and drinks. There are also tables for local organizations and vendors that support the autism community including toy stores, businesses, therapists and facilities like the UNMC Munroe-Meyer Institute.
A WORD OF WARNING: the noise from all of the kids, attractions and music can get pretty intense for our sensory-sensitive kiddos. The ASN provides a sensory-safe room just off the Arena floor to help kiddos, although we did not go inside it. Instead we discovered that the seats above the main area can separate you from the noise enough to give your kiddo a chance to calm down. I would recommend you bring your headphones or other distractions just in case of a sensory overload.
Onward, Autism Soldiers
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Puzzle Walk is the procession of the kids, parents, families and supporters at the beginning of the walk. Everyone gathers on the arena floor for the closing ceremonies. Then they slowly proceed out the back door of the arena into the adjacent neighborhood.
The massive column of autistic kids and their supporters brought me to tears. Any doubt in my mind that we were alone in our autism journey in Omaha was wiped away.
Here were hundreds of folks who were in the exact same boots as ours, and they were all walking together to support each other. Large groups of folks wore identical shirts supporting a single child or family. Vendors and therapists and teachers and paras and pets and a plethora of other supporters walked and cheered alongside them.
Alex, Mindi and I found our place in line outside the arena and joined the walk with tears in our eyes and pride in our hearts to be a part of such an inclusive, supportive community.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go
The 3-mile walk is a very leisurely one, just as the ASN describes it. For the most part, it’s flat and on the sidewalks surrounding the shopping areas on the west side of 72nd Street. But if you’re familiar with Ralston, you know the town basically hugs the side of some big hills, so there are a few spots where the walk gets pretty steep. Thankfully, at the top of the biggest hill we ran into a small band of drummers who re-energized us, and we made our way down the hill back towards 72nd Street.
We only made it about 1.5 miles in before we knew Alex was done walking. We broke from the crowd and made straight for the Arena parking lot. We weren’t alone. There were plenty of strollers and other adults and kiddos who had enough of the walk and were ready to move on to the next thing.
Don’t worry if you don’t finish the whole walk. As Pete the Cat would say, it’s all good.
Please Won’t You Be Our Neighbor?
As we began work on this blog early last year, we knew there was a community of folks like us in the Omaha area who face the challenges of autism on a daily basis. After the Puzzle Walk, we KNEW just how many of us there are.
We in the Omaha autism community are united in our journeys, our challenges and our desire to support one another, perhaps no day more so than during the Puzzle Walk.
I hope you and your family will register for the Puzzle Walk and join your community, support one another and have a really fun day with your neighbors.
Feel free to share your experiences and suggestions about the Puzzle Walk in the Comments below or on Facebook and Twitter. We’d love to hear what your experience with the Puzzle Walk was like!