Photo by SUZETTE COOK/special to Alachua County Today


GAINESVILLE ‒ The University of Florida’s Fishing for Success (FFS) program hosted a special Fishing for Autism event on Saturday, May 18, 2024, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The idea for hosting an event specifically for children with autism and their families was started three years ago by Fishing for Autism Founder Katy O’Connor, whose son Chase, 8, is autistic and non-verbal. O’Connor lives in Ontario, Canada, with her family and started taking Chase fishing at a small pond because of the calming effect of the experience.

“That was our bonding time and form of therapy for us, so I started Fishing for Autism in my hometown, and it expanded from there,” she said.

In 2019, O’Connor said professional nuisance alligator trapper Ron Sanderson of Gainesville reached out to her after he learned about her efforts from her Instagram account. “He saw my event photos and asked if he could branch it out to Gainesville.”

Coming from a small town, O’Connor said it was incredible that the University of Florida offered to host Fishing for Autism at the UF/IFAS Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences ponds off Millhopper Road. “Biologists use these ponds for their studies, and I’m excited that my event has made it out there,” she said.

On the day of the event, there were stations for attendees to go pond fishing, dip netting for invertebrates, various games and activities, sensory bins and toys, arts and crafts, prizes, and food.

Prior to the event Sanderson said he would be there helping families with fishing equipment and to see the kids and families enjoying the activities. “It’s about seeing the joy in the kids’ eyes and watching them react when they catch a fish,” he said about why he likes to help out at the event.

Another headliner was Hall of Fame competitive bass fisherman Shaw Grisby. Grigsby is one of the most popular, well-liked anglers in the country,

FFS Program Coordinator Bethan Gillett said the event offers a peaceful and relaxing experience that attendees can enjoy as a family. “Fishing can be therapeutic, and the kids get so happy and excited when they catch a fish.”

“There were passports for kids to take from station to station to get stamped and then trade it in for a goodie bag. Fishing gear, t-shirts, and other prizes were raffled off. The May 18 event was open only to children with autism and their families unlike the monthly FFS events which are open to the public.

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