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Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Cookie Kennedy presented an Autism Awareness Month proclamation to the Hargett family, from left, Scotty, Trevor, Zachary and Mishelle.

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Mishelle Hargett can’t help getting emotional when describing how she and her family reacted when they received her son, Zachary’s, autism diagnosis soon after he turned three.

“Instantly, my heart sank, and I immediately began to cry,” Hargett said during the Indian Rocks Beach City Commission meeting April 12, relating thoughts surging through her mind when she and her husband, Scotty, received the diagnosis in 2015.

“I was shaking and so scared for what this meant for my precious baby boy and his future,” Hargett recalled. “I sat through the evaluation and didn’t hear a word they said.”

With help from her husband, doctors and staff at Anona Elementary School in Largo — where she said they “have helped him grow and flourish so much” — Mishelle said Zachary has come a long way from his initial diagnosis.

She said gets told her son “doesn’t look autistic” and some suggest he was misdiagnosed.

“The people who say these things have not seen how scared he gets when the wind is blowing, what thunder and lightning do to him, or how a tight hug or holding our toes comforts him,” Hargett said. “Sometimes he wants to be alone, and sometimes he wants to be with someone else. … He is brilliant and has a memory that will blow your mind. Every day, this precious boy teaches us something, and every day he amazes us more.”

Hargett, with Zachary by her side and her husband and 13-year-old son Trevor sitting in the audience, then recalled that Mayor Cookie Kennedy was dismayed to learn Zachary couldn’t participate in the city’s annual Easter egg hunt.

“Cookie asked Zachary if he would be attending the Easter egg hunt, and he said no,” Hargett said. “When she asked him why, he told her because there are too many people, and it was too scary for him. Mayor Cookie was surprised to learn that although Indian Rocks Beach is the only home Zachary has ever known, he has not gone to any of the Easter egg hunts or the other large family events because the large crowds make it too overwhelming for him.”

Hargett said Kennedy was determined to do something and bring more autism awareness to the IRB community, first by proclaiming April as Autism Awareness Month in the city and by organizing events and activities dedicated to the area’s special needs kids.

“At the time this was at the beginning of COVID, so this was all put on hold,” Hargett said. “Now that things are beginning to get back to normal, Mayor Kennedy and my husband and I have begun to get a plan in place.”

Hargett’s plan includes reaching out to other Pinellas County communities for guidance as well as contacting local businesses, organizations, and social clubs to try and drum up support for the cause.

“After the meeting (Pinellas Suncoast Fire) Chief (Jeffrey) Davidson approached me and he explained how the city he came from used to hold an autism awareness event on the beach and he was happy to offer his department’s support for us,” Hargett said. “So he will be working with us on this, as well.”

In closing her speech, Hargett thanked Kennedy and IRB for taking action to promote autism awareness.

“To have our city embrace this and to want to help us bring awareness to autism is very touching and means a great deal to us,” she said. “Mayor Kennedy has always gone above and beyond for Indian Rocks Beach and the citizens. Indian Rocks Beach is her heart.”

Kennedy, who recently began a third term in office, said she believes bringing awareness to autism and other special needs is important for any community leader.

“Some of us just feel you’re there to protect the children,” she said. “Maybe it’s part of being a politician or maybe it’s being a mother, but I have a connection with Zachary and I’m protective about doing the best we can for him and for kids with other special needs.”

She noted she has spoken to the fire chief about doing a local beach event and said City Manager Greg Mims worked to orchestrate a separate egg hunt away from the crowd. She said she also wants to get input from Hargett moving forward.

“Mishelle knows so much about this, and she understands their needs better than we do,” Kennedy said. “We’re already working on the egg hunt for next year, because we need to do a really good job.”