Giving creative autistic adults their close-up at annual event

When both of her sons were diagnosed with autism in the early 1990s, Shirley Fett and her husband had very few resources for support and information. Like most parents, they wanted their boys to be able to have the same experiences playing and having fun as any other child. The frustration came in finding programs that had staff members trained on the best ways to work with autistic individuals. She decided to join the board of the Autism Society San Diego.

The organization started in San Diego in 1966 with a national focus to provide community and information for parents of autistic children. It has since become a local affiliate of the national organization, with a mission to improve the lives of everyone affected by autism with participation in various activities and support programs.

Fett, 60, lives in the Clairemont/Bay Park area with her husband, Bruce, and they have two adult sons, Derek and Brock. She’s nurse practitioner who’s also twice served as president of the San Diego group and is currently an executive board member and chair of the organization’s Lights! Camera! Autism! event this evening, which highlights the talent and creativity of autistic adults in San Diego. She took some time to talk about her personal experience with autism, her work with Autism Society of San Diego, and tonight’s film and visual art event.

Q: Tell us about the Autism Society San Diego.

A: The mission of the Autism Society San Diego is to improve the lives of all affected by autism. We have an all-volunteer board comprised of parents, family members, professionals, autistic individuals and community members. Today, we provide a wide range of services and supports for our community, some of which includes six support group meetings each month; two monthly, family fun events; a monthly electronic newsletter; summer camps specifically for autistic children, teens and adults; adult social support group; and family camps.

Q: Why did you want to work with the organization?

A: I joined the board when my sons were about 6 and 8 years old. I started looking for summer recreation programs for them. After all, they were little boys who deserved to play and have fun like any other child. Autism should not prevent them from having these same experiences, right? Well, after many failed attempts to find and enroll them in camp programs, I became frustrated and thought, “I can’t be the only parent who wants this for their child and can’t find it.” So, I decided to join the board as a possible vehicle for getting some programs going for our kids. We needed to find activities where the staff were trained in best practices working with autistic individuals. This continues to be a focus of our organization.

Q: Why did you want to serve as president during your two past terms?

A: Being the president of the organization was an honor and privilege. In this role, I was able to meet and speak to many different community members and groups, not only about the organization, but also about autism. Educating the public about autism has been very important. I also have been able to meet many families and help create a supportive network of programs and services for our families.

What I love about Clairemont/Bay Park …

I love living in Clairemont/Bay Park because we are so close to everything we want to do. We can be downtown, at the beach, at the airport or in Balboa Park in about 15 minutes. Plus, on my drive home from work every day, I get to see the bay and ocean on the horizon. Beautiful!

Q: You’re also the chairperson of the Lights! Camera! Autism! event? Tell us about this event.

A: This is the second year for our Lights! Camera! Autism! event. This is a film and art event that showcases the many talents of local autistic adults in the film and art arena and it’s being held from 5 to 9 p.m. tonight at Qualcomm Hall, 5775 Morehouse Drive, San Diego, and it’s open to anyone in the community. There will be 11 local visual artists showing their work. During the art exhibition, there will be live jazz music and guests will be served wine, beer and light appetizers.

After the art and music show, attendees will enter the theater to view films. There are three short films written, produced and starring adults in the Film and Media Studio Program here in San Diego. Then, there will be a feature, documentary film, “Deej,” which is about a young, non-verbal autistic man and his journey to become independent, go to college and move into his adult life. The film was a 2018 Peabody Award winner.

Q: What can you tell us about the jazz performance by Alexander Pruetting?

A: Alexander is an autistic young man who is from Poway, and he’s what’s known as an autistic savant, with perfect pitch, a near-photographic memory for music, and a surprising facility with the saxophone and piano. Until he was 4 years old, he communicated only with rhythmic grunts, but whenever he sang, he was able to articulate long passages. When he learned to play keyboard, he could recognize notes and chords by ear, and immediately play and memorize music after hearing it once. Now, he is able to play the alto saxophone in jazz and concert bands and sing in choirs and with the band. This is an example of what autistic individuals can do if given the right support.

Q: Why is working for autism support and awareness important to you?

A: It is immensely important that people understand what autism is, know that autistic individuals are an important part of our community and can have a full and productive life. So much of the time, we hear what our kids can’t do, and the message really needs to be about what they can do. Our kids will be adults far longer than they are children, so educating the public and creating opportunities for autistic adults is important today more than ever.

I think the other thing that is important is for parents and family members to know that your life is not over, but it will be different than what you might have anticipated and can still be great. I hope my family is an example of that for others in the community.

Q: What’s been rewarding about your work?

A: Seeing some of the early ideas I brought to the organization become a reality and continue today. I am especially proud of being one of the founders of our summer camps for children and teens, Camp I CAN. I have also been involved with the creation of our Pool PALS aquatic program, which includes teaching autistic individuals how to swim, surf camp, and family pool parties. These all started by in 2002 when I joined the board and today they are some of our most popular programs.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: Ha! Well, I don’t need as much sleep as I thought I did. Seriously, though, it has taught me that I can be an effective advocate, leader and public speaker.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: Pace yourself. Autism is forever.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I love to sew. “Project Runway” is one of my guilty pleasures to watch (on television)!

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My Saturday always starts with going to Kobey’s Swap Meet with my oldest son. We literally go every week since that is one of his favorite things to do. Most of the vendors there know us. After that, an ideal weekend would be barbecuing at home, swimming in our pool, soaking in the Jacuzzi, and enjoying going out for a movie.

Three must-see headlines


Twitter: @lisadeaderick

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = “//”; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, ‘script’, ‘facebook-jssdk’));