BINGHAMTON, NY – Some local children and adults with autism and their families got treated to a day at the zoo today while advocates lobby for greater inclusion.

The local organization Advocates for Autism partnered with the Ross Park Zoo to provide free admission to kids with autism that were accompanied by one paying adult.

The all-volunteer organization, created in 2007, is the successor to a local chapter of the Autism Society of America.

President Sally Colletti helped to found the local group when her son, who is on the spectrum, was still a toddler.

Now that he’s an adult, her focus has shifted to the needs of adults with autism who often still rely heavily on their parents.

Colletti says it’s past time to move from awareness and acceptance to appreciation.

“We have an expression or tag line called ‘Change the world, not the person.’ We, for years, worked to have our kids fit in, just pass for 15 minutes. But now, no. We need to just change the community and stop changing them,” Colletti.

Colletti says her group would like to see zoning changes so that so-called granny pods, or separate small housing for adult children with autism, can be built on their parents’ property in residential neighborhoods.

She’d like to see other appropriate, integrated housing options for autistic adults.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who is the Republican candidate for New York’s 19th

Congressional District this November, visited the event.

He has a daughter with autism and founded the organization ThinkDifferently which advocates for people with special needs.

Molinaro says more job and college opportunities should be created for those with developmental and cognitive disabilities.

And he has harsh criticism for the federal and state government who he says abandoned special education during the pandemic period of virtual instruction.

“America doesn’t fund special education to the level it should. We’ve created too much bureaucracy to make it too challenging for families to navigate. And we have yet to confront the last almost acceptable bias in this country, and that is the prejudice of low expectation. We assign to people with disabilities what we perceive their ability to be, not what their actual ability is. And that has to change,” says Molinaro.

Advocates for Autism held a scavenger hunt at the zoo today along with giveaways.

And Big Zues Barbecue was on hand with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the group.