“Don’t let autism define you—YOU define your autism,” Hollywood actor Muse Watson advised a young Springfield girl on the spectrum on what some labeled a “tour de force” across Springfield last week.
Watson, admired by many as “Mike Franks,” the beloved mentor of Agent Gibbs on the NBC television series, NCIS, is the honorary chairman of a new non-profit in Springfield, STARS for Autism. Having a child on the spectrum has inspired him to use his celebrity status to spread a message of hope and encouragement to individuals on the spectrum and the many caregivers and professionals working with them every day.
“As a parent of a child with autism, it’s always been my job to acclimate her to the world. More and more, I’m thinking we should be acclimating the world to her,” Watson told board members of STARS for Autism.
On Wednesday, Watson and author, Elizabeth Obrey, shared information with listeners on Rod Kittleman’s KADI radio show. Later that day, Chairman of the Board, Dr. Brenda Bradshaw, joined Watson in a pre-media interview on KOLR 10, followed by a kick off the PFI “Party in the Parking Lot” with shout-outs of encouragement to those with autism.
Watson continued with the tour Friday, beginning with the Shining Stars Early Childhood Center, where he presented an award to Director Sherry Wilson for the center’s dedication to the autism community and monetary donations to STARS for Autism. He then moved to Perkins on West Sunshine, where he met with Springfield super bowler, Trey Brand, who wanted to meet Muse, but in a quiet, familiar place. Watson encouraged Brand to continue his pursuit of his talents and focus on his strengths.
Next on the tour was a sentimental visit to Rivendale Institute of Learning, where Watson began his journey with the founding members of the STARS for Autism Board, Dr. Linda Barboa, Elizabeth Obrey, Shelli Allen, and Jan Luck. Watson visited Rivendale in 2012 while working on a show in Branson. He wanted to visit with parents and professionals working with children with autism. During his visit, he challenged those he spoke with to write a book, which resulted in Stars in Her Eyes: Navigating the Maze of Childhood Autism, an inspiring and informative guidebook about raising a child on the spectrum. Watson states in the forward, “I have come to a point on this journey where I feel that one of the most important things that we as parents can do to support each other is to share our experiences.”
One experience anyone touched by autism will share is that individuals with autism have gifts to contribute. Focusing on the strengths and talents of those with autism is a major goal of STARS for Autism. “We need to move the conversation about autism forward and begin to see them less as a puzzle to be solved and more as the skilled contributors they are to society,” Bradshaw told employees at BKD and Lathrop & Gage on the tour, encouraging them to create jobs and hire individuals with autism. One way STARS for Autism hopes to meet this goal is through training businesses and organizations to be more “Autism Friendly.”
During a special dinner at the Tower Club hosted by Goldminds Publishing and attorney, Dr. Brad Bradshaw, Muse looked out over the city as founder, Dr. Linda Barboa, stated with gratitude, “This day is a dream come true. We are all pulling together with different perspectives and experiences, and sometimes differing opinions; but we are together and moving forward.”
The Springfield Cardinals game at Hammons Stadium was the last stop on the tour, with Watson leading the parade for STARS for Autism and encouraging two kids on the spectrum as they threw the first pitches. Interrupted only for a brief radio spot with author Shelli Allen, he met guests in the concourse with hearty hugs and inspiring words as he signed photographs, copies of Stars in Her Eyes, NCIS shirts and DVDs.
Throughout his visit, Watson encouraged everyone to get involved in supporting the growing population of those touched by autism and to remember that, “Every voice counts!”
Dr. Brenda Bradshaw
Chairman of the Board, STARS for Autism
*A version of this article was originally published in the October 2015 issue Missouri Autism Report as "Actor Muse Watson Energizes Springfield Autism Community"