EDISON PARK — Shirley Craven had never felt so alone or unhappy as she did when two of her grandsons were diagnosed with autism nearly seven years ago.
So Craven, a social worker, did what many people do when faced with a frightening medical diagnosis: she turned to the Internet to find others in the same situation.
"I thought there must be other grandparents who felt the same way, who didn't understand what it meant to have a grandchild with autism," Craven said. "But there was nothing."
So Craven took matters into her own hands and founded Grandparents United for Autism, which will host its fourth annual picnic from noon- 4 p.m. Sept. 8. at LaBagh Woods in Sauganash.
"We found there was such a void of having fun," Craven said. "Parents of a child with autism are so burdened. They are on 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
The picnic will be much like any other summer party, with a bounce house, ice cream, popcorn, face painting and and a visit from a fire truck. But organizers promise an autism-friendly environment, with no judgments for meltdowns, hand flapping, outbursts, rocking and other common behavior from those on the autism spectrum.
"We accept the kids the way they are, and that makes all the difference," Craven said.
While giving their adult children a break — and their grandchildren a fun afternoon — the picnic also gives the grandparents a chance to meet others facing the same challenges.
"People forget the impact autism can have on the grandparents," Craven said. "They call it a sandwich — you're worried about your grandkids, of course, but also your adult kids and how hard they work. I don't know how they do it. This picnic is a chance to honor them."
About 150 people are expected to attend the picnic, which the Chicagoland chapter of Autism Speaks helped organize, Craven said.
Carole Barrett, of west suburban Bloomingdale, said the picnic is the highlight of the summer for her 11-year-old granddaughter, Emma, who has autism and does not speak.
"She's always so excited," Barrett said. "She's just at home there."
The organization, which draws members from all over the Chicago area, has created a community that gives grandparents of those with autism a chance to relax and share information, Craven said.
"We don't want to burden our adult children with our questions and fears," Craven said. "And we can't talk to our other friends. They wouldn't understand."
Fran Durkin, of Edison Park, joined the group after finding it online after her grandson, J.T., was diagnosed with autism.
"It was a terrible feeling," Durkin said. "Your heart is breaking not just for your grandchild but also for your child."
The group helps its members redefine their dreams about their grandchildren and their future, Durkin said.
"J.T. doesn't like to be touched," Durkin said. "You have to fight the 'what ifs.'"
Barrett said the group also helps her get through the tough times of helping to raise children with autism.
"When you've tried everything, it can get overwhelming," Barrett said. "The group, and the picnic, helps give us the extra spirit to say we can do it."