Man stops in Vicksburg while walking Natchez Trace for autism acceptance

Published 1:30 pm Friday, April 7, 2023

Brad Meshell is currently on a month-long mission to walk the entirety of the Natchez Trace Parkway to raise awareness for — and acceptance of — autism.

On Monday, he stopped in Vicksburg on the 444-mile trek from Natchez to Nashville.

In 2021, Meshell’s son Jacob, who is now 4 years old, was diagnosed with autism. Shortly after, Meshell decided to start his non-profit organization, Jacob’s Audible, to raise awareness for the condition.

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“With that diagnosis came a lot for me personally. There came a lot of depression, a lot of isolation. As a father, you just really don’t know what to do,” Meshell said. “You have all these expectations — it’s my first boy — and it all goes away.”

Meshell said he spent some time grappling with the news of his son’s diagnosis.

“The way I looked at autism, in the beginning, was very negative, was very wide. (I played) the blame game, all those different things. But then I realized at some point that I couldn’t stay down here, because when you’re a dad, if your son scrapes his knee, you fix it,” Meshell said. “But with this, you can’t take it away. But then I finally got myself to a place where (I could say), let’s change the way we see this. Let’s change the way we’re looking at this thing.”

Meshell, a Bellevue, Tenn., resident, and his wife had driven the Natchez Trace many times during the pandemic as a way to get out of the house. While trying to figure out what route to take, he felt the Trace would be a perfect fit.

Meshell is not pulling this off all on his own. A number of people have provided support for his efforts, including Ashton Hotard. Hotard is a speech-language pathologist and is the owner and operator of Jubilee Therapy in Vicksburg. She worked with Meshell during the course of his visit to help spread awareness of Autism in the community.

Hotard said that resources in more rural areas of the country can be very limited for children with autism and their parents. She believes that raising awareness about the condition will help lead to more of a public demand for those services.

“There’s a large percentage of our children with autism that have single mothers that are working as hard as they possibly can,” Hotard said. “Then they have daycare calling them every day and saying they don’t have the resources to have the child at their center.”

She also added that these areas with fewer autism resources are exactly where the public needs to be educated on autism and that her goal is not just raising autism awareness, but also autism acceptance.

“Some people don’t accept that people with autism act differently. Here in Vicksburg, I think it really should be both. Because there are just a lot of people that aren’t even really aware of what autism is, or they have a preconceived notion of what it is,” Hotard said. “And so our goal this month is to really just try and educate people.”

For more information about Jacob’s Audible, visit the organization’s website at Hotard and her team also host an autism support group, which is held on the last  Thursday of the month at the YMCA and is open to the public.