Autism Speaks is the name of just one organization aiding victims of that disorder, and on Saturday the voice from local residents wanting to do their part was heard loud and clear at Riverside Park.
Some 512 people participated in the first-ever Autism Walk here, sponsored by the Surry County chapter of the Autism Society of North Carolina, and raised more that $12,500 in the process, according to organizer Bridget Soots.
“It amazing,” Soots said while surveying the throng of participants lining up to begin the walk on the Ararat River Greenway which was held in conjunction with Autism Awareness Month. “It’s our first walk and we really didn’t know what to expect.”
The $12,500-plus generated Saturday will aid the local chapter’s mission of providing help, support and resources to families affected by autism. It typically costs a family more than $1.5 million over the lifetime of a loved one stricken with the developmental disorder.
Many of those in attendance Saturday were like Elissa Debnam of Mount Airy, who said she possesses “just a little bit” of knowledge about autism, but “not much.”
“A lot of people don’t know about it, or know what to do,” Debnam added.
“I think it’s a good way to support the cause — bring awareness to people,” she said of Saturday’s event.
Debnam also had another reason for attending: “I always wanted to do a walk,” and later she experienced that for the first time.
In addition to those who walked, other supporters participated in a simultaneous Zumba session at a picnic shelter at Riverside Park.
70,000 Cases In N.C.
Before Debnam and others set out on the greenway Saturday, they crowded in and around the shelter and were told about the impact of autism on society.
“It is a disorder — it is not a disease. Nobody can catch it,” emphasized Lisa Jeffreys of Mount Airy, who heads the local chapter of the Autism Society of North Carolina. She explained that autism includes a group of developmental disabilities that affects someone’s ability to detect what they see or hear and how they relate to others, and it’s something victims did not choose.
“Every 20 minutes, someone is being diagnosed with autism,” said Jeffreys, whose son Matthew — a 2011 honor graduate of Mount Airy High School — is among that number. It tends to appear in the first three years of life, and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills.
However, through proper diagnosis, treatment and much family support, Matthew is now a student at Surry Community College, Jeffreys told Saturday’s crowd, which responded with loud applause.
There are 70,000 known cases of autism in North Carolina and 1.5 million in the United States. It affects one of every 88 children. Autism figures for Surry County were not available.
“No two individuals will have the same characteristics of autism,” Jeffreys said.
Other insight was provided by a Mount Airy pediatrician who handles autism cases, Dr. Cecil Thoppil. In remarks before Saturday’s walk, he likened autism to a problem affecting the “wiring” of some youngsters. Signs of the condition include being accident-prone or experiencing unusual mishaps, Thoppil said.
Autistic children might not be as talkative as others and can have a tendency for temper tantrums. Often they have difficulty dealing with other people and might be disliked as a result by those who don’t understand the condition. The frustrations of autism sufferers can sometimes lead them to alcohol abuse or similar problems, Thoppil said.
Jeffreys told those gathered that the three key words in handling someone with autism are “patience, patience and patience.”
The good news is that there is now a greater understanding among the medical community about autism and better techniques for diagnosing it at an earlier age.
Jeffreys said someone can lead a highly productive life despite being stricken by autism.
“They might not be the next Michael Jordan,” she said, but could be a Mozart, Michaelangelo or Einstein — just some of the notable people who had autism.
Jeffreys pointed out that the financial resources available for autism research are dwarfed by those devoted to other conditions. The money raised Saturday will make a difference in the lives of those suffering from the problem, organizers say.
It came from sales of door-prize tickets, sponsorships by local businesses and donations. Various sponsors and vendors set up booths at the park Saturday to provide resources and information to families who might not know what services are available for them. Door prizes also were given out after the walk.
Soots said organizers consider themselves “blessed” by the response to Saturday’s event, especially since there were fears that the weather might not cooperate.
Dr. Thoppil also was happy with the support for the first-time gathering.
“I am so pleased and honored to see this kickoff today.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.