Thousands of people are expected to attend this Sunday’s Walk Now for Autism Speaks event to raise funds for the organization while providing more information about an oft-misunderstood disorder.
Scheduled for Oct. 27 at Tempe Beach Park, the event is split between a 5k run and a one-mile walk — the former begins at 9:15 a.m., the latter at 9:30 a.m. — with prizes handed out for the top runners after the athletic portion of the event. The event also includes a slew of activities that start after the run and the walk, like the kids’ zone, a main stage for entertainment and a vendor village for participants that lasts until approximately 12:30 p.m.
The event features numerous sponsors, including Sprouts, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, Cardon Children’s Medical Center and Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Valley Honda Dealers’ Helpful Guys in Blue will also be on hand as sponsors of the start and finish lines to provide suntan lotion and support to the participants.
Money raised from the event goes to support Autism Speaks — a national organization that provides information about autism and advocates for autism-related causes ranging from treatment of autism to housing for people with the disorder.
Chandler mom Renata Irving has participated in the Autism Speaks walk with her 24-year-old son Sam since it began almost a decade ago, and she has watched the participation increase from less than a thousand to somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,00 last year.
“It’s kind of bittersweet because there are so many people, but there are so many people,” she said.
Even though it’s a national event, Pieceful Solutions owner/director Kami Cothrun said the Arizona walk also has local ties with the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, or SARRC — a Phoenix-based center that provides exactly what its name implies for people with autism and their families. Some of the funding, she said, will remain in the community, which is important given the increasing necessity for financial assistance.
“We need money for research, we need money for support because the numbers are exponentially growing, and they’re growing faster than we can help them,” she said.
Walk Now for Autism Speaks is the organization’s largest fundraising event across the country, and the local version has raised more than $337,000 as of Oct. 24. But the run/walk isn’t just about raising funds; rather, participants like Cothrun said it doubles as a resource to let the public know more about autism.
It’s kind of a tricky disorder because the symptoms of the people diagnosed with it — 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys per nationally, and 1 in 64 children and 1 in 40 boys in Arizona, per the Centers for Disease Control — fall upon a spectrum. Those on the upper level of the spectrum have a more difficult time caring for themselves and often live with their families throughout adulthood, but according to the Autism Speaks website, approximately 40 percent have average to above average intelligence and even excel in areas like music and academics.
Cothrun, whose school works with autistic K-12 students in Chandler and Mesa, described the kids she and her staff work with as “quirky,” which fits the aforementioned 40 percent cited by Autism Speaks that have a different way of viewing the world.
“They (public) picture that child who’s rocking and banging their heads,” she said. “I have 100 students, and not a one who does that.”
In Irving’s case, her son, who was diagnosed approximately 20 years ago, has a rather strong aptitude for art, and she said art galleries in Chandler and Gilbert have put his work on display. Art also happens to be the one activity Sam focuses on most intensely, as she said he can spend five to six hours straight working on one piece.
“He gets into this artistic zone and he’s so proud of his work,” she said.
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy for either Irving or her son. When he was first diagnosed, she was told his IQ was too low for testing to calculate, and she said the family’s insurance plan didn’t cover some of the therapies Sam needed in the early days.
Early intervention is key, she said, and all of the meetings with teachers and therapists, classes and other trials and tribulations combine to create an experience she described as a marathon. The main reason she used the word “bittersweet” earlier stems from the realization of how many more people are affected by the disorder every year.
What makes it sweet though is how she said the event is a means of reconnecting with other families they’ve met through the run/walk, and she said it’s gratifying to see how much support there is in the greater Valley area.
Marathons aren’t easy, but the journey comes with its fair share of rewards before the finish line. For Irving, that’s the ability to watch her son grow into the artist and the person he is today.
“He may not be the typical 24-year-old, but he’s come a long way,” she said.
Visit http://evtnow.com/5z6 for more information about the event.
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