An Autism Diagnosis Survival Guide

Expert advice for families, from parents who have been there


Published:

Photo courtesy of christa harder

Christa Harder of Charlotte with her three children, two of whom have autism. Her 7-year-old son Nolan, left, was diagnosed in 2013 when Harder was pregnant with now 5-year-old twins Neil and Nora, center and right. Neil was diagnosed with autism two years later. 

Seven-year-old Nolan Harder of Charlotte was always a little different. As a toddler, he would lick the carpet and walls. He’d bang his head on doors. He didn’t speak until well after his peers.

And yet, when Nolan was diagnosed with autism at age 2, his mother Christa says the news still felt staggering.

 “The beginning is awful for anybody,” Harder says. “I felt very alone. People kept saying, he’s just a kid, he’ll grow out of it. But he didn’t. It was like, is my child ever going to talk? Is he ever going to have friends?”

Harder’s experience is common. According to experts at the Autism Society of North Carolina, many parents feel overwhelmed, alone and anxious about the future during the first months after their child is diagnosed with autism.

“It’s like you’re running a gauntlet on a daily basis and it wears you down physically and emotionally,” says David Laxton, director of communications for the Autism Society of North Carolina. “Each person’s experience is different, but you don’t have to feel like you have to figure it out on your own.”

To help, we’ve compiled a few tips.

1. Get a medical diagnosis. A medical diagnosis is critical, says Jill Lorenzi, a medical instructor at the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. Not only will a diagnosis pinpoint your child’s needs, but without it, it may be difficult to access many of the services that will help your child most. “We know that individuals with autism learn differently, so focused help for the child’s needs are important,” Lorenzi says.

A comprehensive assessment includes a thorough evaluation of the child’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as screenings for additional medical conditions.

2. Take a breath. “I would say, the first step is to take a deep breath and recognize the freedom that comes with a diagnosis,” says Sara Passey, Apex mother of 12-year-old Max, who has autism. “I know that sounds strange, but when you know what it is, you have an idea of where to go. Getting a diagnosis lets you say, OK. This is a new adventure. Let’s go.”

It’s important to remember that your child is the same individual he or she was before being diagnosed, Laxton advises. Your child will continue to grow and develop, even if it’s at a different pace than his or her peers.

“It is not something that is the end of the world, but you have to pace yourself,” Laxton says. “It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”

3. Start with evidence-based research. “You could spend all day and all night for years and not be able to scratch the surface of what’s out there (regarding autism advice),” Lorenzi says. “When you’re trying to find a few things that will work, it’s quicker to narrow down to evidence-based resources first. Anchor yourself to an organization like Autism Speaks or the Duke Center for Autism (and Brain Development).”

4. Reach out. Remember, you are not alone. Reaching out to other autism parents can be enormously beneficial, says Brenda Candland of Holly Springs, whose son, Franklin, has autism.  

“Find other parents who have children with autism,” she says. “You’re not alone. Even though all autistic children are different, you all share a common goal: You love your child and want what’s best for your child.”

Laxton suggests finding a social media support group for tips and moral support, or connecting with the Autism Society of North Carolina, which offers workshops for parents and grandparents of the newly diagnosed throughout the year.

“Just being able to talk to somebody — to share what your fears are, your questions — having somebody you can talk to who’s been down that path is so much better than googling all night long,” he says.

Photos courtesy of Sara Passey

 Max Passey, 12, was diagnosed with autism when he was almost 2 years old. His mother Sara, also pictured, encourages self-care and celebrating every small victory. 

5. Take care of yourself. Many autism parents say it’s hard for them to find the right way to include self-care in their everyday lives. Some autistic individuals rarely sleep. Others become violently upset by anyone new, making finding a babysitter a distinct challenge.

The idea of “taking some time for yourself” can seem laughably unrealistic, Passey says, but it’s important to try.

“That kid needs you to be your best, and you can only do that if you’re taking care of yourself,” she says. “You don’t have to be removed from the situation. You don’t have to go anywhere. You just have to find something that fills you and give yourself permission to do it.”

Self-care could mean meditating for five minutes, taking the time to eat well, exercising, or writing a quick journal entry. Laxton says he knew one parent who recommended using a paper shredder for stress relief.

“You have to figure out what you can do so that you can be the best parent for your child,” Laxton says.

6. Have hope. “It’s not always doom and gloom,” Harder says. “It might feel that way initially, but it gets better. It’s still hard, and it isn’t fun to see your child struggle, but you figure out how to work around things. You’ll adapt. It does get easier.”

While an autistic child’s developmental process will be different from a neurotypical child’s, she will continue to develop.

“Continue to hope and dream for your child,” Lorenzi says. “You might have to tweak your goals or think about them a little bit differently, but there are so many strengths to be utilized and so many great things about people with autism.”

7. Trust yourself. Since every child with autism is different, you are your child’s best advocate. Your child will respond to some settings or therapies better than others. Trust yourself to know what makes the most sense for you and your child to try.

For Bridget Palys and her daughters Emma and Lily, who both have autism, the online classrooms of North Carolina Virtual Academy made more sense for them than a traditional school.

“With online school, they learn in a comfortable atmosphere where they both absorb their lessons without the distractions they experienced in the traditional school setting,” Palys says.

8. Identify resources. As autism awareness has grown, so have the resources available to families. Find out what’s available in your area, including autism specialists, autism-friendly summer camps, workshops and other information, by visiting autismspeaks.org or autismsociety-nc.org.

Autumn Linford works as a freelance journalist in and around the Triangle. She has a master’s degree in journalism and is the mother of three children, including a son with autism. 

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February 2019

The Flying Biscuit Café celebrates National Pancake Month by bringing back its Red Velvet Pancakes. The delicious red velvet pancakes, complete with hand-made cream cheese...

Cost: Dine-in purchase required

Where:
Flying Biscuit - Raleigh
2016 Clark Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27605
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Join park staff in collecting data for the 22nd annual Great Backyard Bird Count. We will look and listen for birds in a variety of habitats, and keep track of how many individuals of each species...

Cost: Free

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Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 191-946-03355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Come by the park center any time during the four days of the Great Backyard Bird Count to view a free slideshow of the birds of Yates Mill Pond. Over 150 photographs of birds are featured in the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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More information

Celebrate all things cats at the Tica Time Cat Show. Watch judging, learn about the different cat breeds, interact with the breeders and exhibitors, cheer on favorite cats, shop...

Cost: $5.00 adults; discounts for children and families

Where:
NC State Fairgrounds: Holshouser Building
1025 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Telephone: 9194774221919-477-42
Contact Name: Ruth Willett
Website »

More information

Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
Website »

More information

Take your favorite Valentine to the farm and join all the animals for some Valentines fun. Meet Peppa Pig and Annie the Donkey, and feed the horses and other animals. Take...

Cost: $13.50/person

Where:
Spring Haven Farm
5306 Homer Ruffin Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
View map »


Sponsor: Spring Haven Farm
Telephone: 919-407-1806
Contact Name: Andrew
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Eagles are often seen around Lake Crabtree County Park. From 2003 to 2011, they even nested here! This year a new nest was discovered, and we are hoping to have an active nesting season this...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
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Telephone: 191-946-03355
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Zuri's Paint and Read Party is a event to bring awareness to young girls who have natural hair to let them know how beautiful they are and that being natural is perfectly acceptable. Paint...

Cost: $15-$25

Where:
Abbott's Creek Community Center
9950 Durant Rd.
Raleigh , NC  27614
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Sponsor: Classy Hair Products
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Search for salamanders, birds, deer and more. All ages with adult. Register online. Choose course #121683.

Cost: $12/resident, $16/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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More information

Join a park naturalist on a one-mile hike around Yates Mill Pond and help to identify and count the birds that we see along the way. Learn how to identify backyard birds by sight, sound, and other...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »

More information

Enjoy afternoon tea in a beautiful Victorian home. Refreshment and light fare will be served and consist of tea sandwiches, scones, fruit and cakes. Unplug and experience the luxury and...

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Morning Glory Inn Bed & Breakfast
507 East 2nd Street
Clayton, NC  27520
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Website »

More information

Walk along the trails and ponds to discover creatures in nature as they settle down for the night. Look for owls and other birds at dusk. Take a flashlight. All ages; children...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Cost: Dine-in purchase required

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Flying Biscuit - Raleigh
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Is it true that Turkey and Eagle once faced off to see who would be our national bird? Find out the answer and discover the natural characteristics that made each bird a contender. Celebrate...

Cost: Free

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Join park staff in collecting data for the 22nd annual Great Backyard Bird Count. We will look and listen for birds in a variety of habitats, and keep track of how many individuals of each species...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
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View map »


Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 191-946-03355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
Website »

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Help staff add to the Great Backyard Bird Count data by walking along the trails and shoreline to identify birds in different habitats of the park. Free for all ages. Suggested for ages 4...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Come by the park center any time during the four days of the Great Backyard Bird Count to view a free slideshow of the birds of Yates Mill Pond. Over 150 photographs of birds are featured in the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »

More information

Ages 2-5 enjoy movement and mindfulness. Learn basic yoga elements through age-appropriate breath-work techniques, games, storytelling, and creative visualization.

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Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East St.
Pittsboro, NC  27312
View map »


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Family Wildlife Series: ​Counting is for the Birds! Monday, February 18 10-11 a.m. Join Blue Jay staff to hear a bird story (or two), try a fun bird activity (or three)  and count how many...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Road
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Telephone: 191-987-04330

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Harris Lake County Park
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
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Crowder County Park
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Apex, NC  27539
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Cost: $15 or use class pass/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East St.
Pittsboro, NC  27312
View map »


Website »

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Spend the afternoon learning all about birds and why it is important that we help conserve them. We will go on a bird behavior scavenger hunt, play the migration game, and learn how to identify...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 191-946-03355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
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15 East Peace St.
Kenan Hall
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View map »


Website »

More information

Join us on a winter bird scavenger hunt! Search for common birds of the park and count them along the way. Practice using binoculars and learn how to identify these animals by shape and color. For...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
Apex, NC  27539
View map »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The Flying Biscuit Café celebrates National Pancake Month by bringing back its Red Velvet Pancakes. The delicious red velvet pancakes, complete with hand-made cream cheese...

Cost: Dine-in purchase required

Where:
Flying Biscuit - Raleigh
2016 Clark Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27605
View map »


Website »

More information

Is it true that Turkey and Eagle once faced off to see who would be our national bird? Find out the answer and discover the natural characteristics that made each bird a contender. Celebrate...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »

More information

Enjoy "Planes" on a big screen. Take snacks and blankets. Doors open at 9:30 a.m.

Cost: Free

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The Halle Cultural Center
237 N. Salem St.
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Ages 2-5 enjoy movement and mindfulness. Learn basic yoga elements through age-appropriate breath-work techniques, games, storytelling, and creative visualization and more.

Cost: $15/child, use your package/membership.

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Kids Mindful Movement - Chapel Hill
781 Mt Carmel Church Rd
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Can you believe there are active beavers building dams and lodges inside Raleigh’s beltline?? Bring your budding naturalist to the park to learn about these awesome creatures that call our park...

Cost: $2

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Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson Street
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Telephone: 919-996-2760
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Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department and Shaw University Men's & Women's Soccer teams offer spring soccer clinics for youth ages 5‐7 who are interested in...

Cost: Free

Where:
Sanderford Road (Softball Field)
2623 Sanderford Rd.
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Celebrate Black History Month with a poetry reading featuring Ashley Harris, Fred Joiner, and members of the local youth and teen poet community. Ashley Harris is a former youth-slam competitor and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Public Library
137 W Margaret Lane
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View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 191-924-52539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

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Show More...
Show Less...

The Flying Biscuit Café celebrates National Pancake Month by bringing back its Red Velvet Pancakes. The delicious red velvet pancakes, complete with hand-made cream cheese...

Cost: Dine-in purchase required

Where:
Flying Biscuit - Raleigh
2016 Clark Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27605
View map »


Website »

More information

Is it true that Turkey and Eagle once faced off to see who would be our national bird? Find out the answer and discover the natural characteristics that made each bird a contender. Celebrate...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »

More information

Connect with your baby, other parents and yourself during this adult-focused postpartum yoga class. Recommended for babies newborn to walking. Take a mat, a blanket for your little one, and...

Cost: $15 or use class pass/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East Street
Pittsboro, NC  27312
View map »


Website »

More information

Meet other families in your community in a recreation setting. The play room will be reserved for parents and their young children. Sports and recreation equipment will be available...

Cost: Free

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
View map »


Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The Flying Biscuit Café celebrates National Pancake Month by bringing back its Red Velvet Pancakes. The delicious red velvet pancakes, complete with hand-made cream cheese...

Cost: Dine-in purchase required

Where:
Flying Biscuit - Raleigh
2016 Clark Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27605
View map »


Website »

More information

This program is designed to move at a toddler’s pace: Run. Stop. Pick dandelions. Run. Climb on a rock. Find an interesting leaf! Join others for an easy-paced hike around the greenway...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson Street
Raleigh, NC  27610
View map »


Telephone: 919-996-2760
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood

More information

This after-school class for kids in grades 3-5 offers fun learning yoga poses and mindfulness techniques to reduce stress. Grades 3-5. 

Cost: $15/class, or use your class pass/membership.

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Chapel Hill
781 Mt. Carmel Church Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27517
View map »


Website »

More information

Sharpen your culinary skills and learn some new ones during this cooking class for would-be chefs. Call or stop by to register 919-245-2532 to register. Space is limited.

Cost: 0

Where:
Orange County Public Library
137 W Margaret Lane
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 191-924-52539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Enjoy the family-friendly movie and a slice or two of pizza. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $5/person, $2 for ages 2 and younger

Where:
The Halle Cultural Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Website »

More information

Learn to recognize warning signs of unhealthy dating relationships and potential dating violence. In addition, participants will learn current sexting statistics and trends as well as North...

Cost: Free

Where:
Poe Center for Heath Education
224 Sunnybrook Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
View map »


Website »

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Parents learn ways to discipline and communicate with a toddler to increase cooperation and reduce power struggles. Register online.

Cost: $22/person, $33/couple

Where:
Project Enlightenment
501 S. Boylan Ave.
Raleigh, NC
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Website »

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Show Less...

The Flying Biscuit Café celebrates National Pancake Month by bringing back its Red Velvet Pancakes. The delicious red velvet pancakes, complete with hand-made cream cheese...

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Flying Biscuit - Raleigh
2016 Clark Ave.
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Chase away the winter blues with a hike through the JC Raulston Arboretum's Winter Garden! Meet at the Bobby G. Wilder Visitor Center ready for a fun time outside. From there, we will go to the...

Cost: $5.00 per child for Arboretum family members, $7.00 per child for nonmembers (no

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Road
Raleigh, NC  27606
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Telephone: 919-513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
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Put on your fanciest clothes and come to the royal ball! Don your crowns, dance the night away, and enjoy other royal activities fit for tiny kings and queens.

Cost: Free

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Orange County Public Library
137 W Margaret Lane
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Whooo’s active in the park after dark? Find out during a night hike at Crowder! Learn about owls and other birds that are active at night. Bundle up—it is cold outside!  For all ages (adult...

Cost: Free

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Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
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Ages 15 and older with disabilities enjoy dancing, music, games and refreshments. Take a camera for a photo in front of a winter scene background. Register online. 

Cost: $3

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro
Carrboro, NC  27510
View map »


Website »

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Yates Mill has served as a source of artistic inspiration for more than two centuries and continues to be the subject of numerous local works of art. Help us to celebrate the opening of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
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Ages 5 and older investigate what's up in space this month. Program begins with an indoor presentation and (weather permitting) moves outside after sunset to view the moon, stars, and more with...

Cost: $3

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Wilkerson Nature Preserve
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View map »


Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson staff
Website »

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Enjoy fun, games, friendship and more every Friday.

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Sanderford Road Center
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
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This class is a chance for adventurous women to get together for a fun-filled workshop where we explore the basics of aerial silks. No need for a background in aerial yoga, this is a workshop...

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Cary Hot Yoga
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Enjoy a special storytime for ages 4 and older with Jonathan Voss, author of "Brave Enough for Two: A Hoot and Olive Story".

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Quail Ridge Books
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Poets everywhere are speaking out about what they believe in. In this generative workshop, we'll examine techniques used in poems that tackle tough topics like racial inequality, immigration,...

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Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 191-924-52539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

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North Carolina Museum of History
5 E. Edenton St.
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Website »

More information

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Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Grace Bible Fellowship
9043 Chapel Hill Road
Cary, NC  27513
View map »


Telephone: 919-468-4590
Website »

More information

Enjoy a docent-led tours through exhibits that highlight the contributions of African-Americans to North Carolina.

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of History
5 E. Edenton St.
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Website »

More information

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Arial; color: #403f42; -webkit-text-stroke: #403f42; background-color: #ccccb3} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} Enjoy...

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Telephone: 919-942-7373
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Winter days find many animals curled up in their dens. They sleep warmly, awakening in spring ready to enjoy the renewed Earth. Discover how animals prepare for cold weather and which ones...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Arial; color: #403f42; -webkit-text-stroke: #403f42; background-color: #ccccb3} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} Enjoy songs...

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
View map »


Telephone: 919-942-7373
Website »

More information

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Arial; color: #403f42; -webkit-text-stroke: #403f42; background-color: #ccccb3} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} Enjoy...

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
View map »


Telephone: 919-942-7373
Website »

More information

Gather 'round the campfire for an evening of storytelling, nature, and marshmallows. As dusk falls, we'll come together to meet new friends, enjoy quality time, and share a tale connected...

Cost: $2/person

Where:
Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve
8305 Camp Durant Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2018-19 Education Guide offers 678 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools, academic resources and an Exceptional Child special section.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. Plus, find out who our 2018 Readers' Favorites are.