The third-annual Autism Walk of Surry scheduled Saturday in Mount Airy will raise awareness of a developmental disorder that strikes one of every 58 children — and money to train teachers to deal with the condition.
Last year, more than 1,000 people participated in the walk, which generated $23,000. Part of those funds provided workshops for teachers in the Surry County educational system to help them become more knowledgeable about autism, which has been labeled a “misunderstood epidemic.”
Other funding allowed local families with affected children to attend an autistic conference and meet other needs arising from a condition that can be draining both emotionally and financially.
“Our goal this year is $30,000,” said Bridget Soots, a parent of an autistic child, who is chairing Saturday’s walk. As in the past two years, it will originate from the picnic shelter/playground area of Riverside Park and proceed onto the adjoining Ararat River Greenway, with registration at 8 a.m. and the walk set for 9 a.m.
The teacher training provided through the 2013 event was limited to county schools, but this year the plan is to extend it to Mount Airy City Schools and Millennium Charter Academy. Next year, it is hoped the Elkin school system will be added, so educators across the county can be better equipped to handle children with autism.
Every 20 minutes a child is diagnosed with the disorder that includes a group of developmental disabilities affecting the brain’s normal function. It tends to surface in the first three years of life and impacts communication, social interaction and behavior.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) undermines a person’s ability to understand what they see, hear and otherwise sense, with no two people affected the same way, according to information provided by Soots.
As diagnostic methods have improved, more children have been identified with autism.
“It’s just unreal,” Soots said of the frequency of the condition among children such as her son Caiden, now 9, and its impact on their families.
Fortunately, however, the growing problem of autism has been mirrored by increased awareness of it and a willingness of the public to help.
The first Autism Walk of Surry in 2012 drew more than 500 people and generated $13,000, with attendance doubling the next year and proceeds growing by $10,000. So hopes are high for this Saturday’s walk.
“It’s getting more awareness out,” Soots said of the popularity of the event, which is held each April as part of Autism Awareness Month.
“How we get our funding is through (business) sponsorships and selling our T-shirts,” Soots explained of the money raised. Many of the supporting local businesses will have teams at Saturday’s walk, with the shirts offered for $15 each. Other money comes from food sold at the event, which will include about 15 vendors Saturday.
“It’s staying here in Surry County,” Soots said of the sums generated each year. In addition to teacher training, the money provides respite care to autistic families needing a break or who have medical needs, and programs/education for parents who’ve just received a diagnosis.
Aside from the money aspect, Soots says there is a need for the general public to just come out and show its support for victims of autism, the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States. More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and cancer combined, according to information from Soots.
There is no registration fee, which she said recognizes the fact that families with autistic children who might want to come out and walk face enough financial burdens already. Studies have shown that having a child with autism can cost more than $1 million.
Soots herself spent more than $20,000 in the first year when her son was diagnosed, which required a number of costly therapeutic services. Caiden suffers from severe to moderate autism as well as epilepsy.
Other Event Details
Participants do not have to walk the entire distance at Saturday’s event, with the route extending the length of the greenway, 2.2 miles, and back to Riverside Park.
Dr. Cecil Thoppil of Mount Airy will be the kickoff speaker for the walk. Thoppil has become extremely interested in autism due to having patients with the condition and wanting to do more to help. This led to his becoming licensed in that specialty, Soots said.
At this time, no cure has been found for autism. The number of victims in Surry County is unknown, with Soots only able to supply the figure of one out of every 58 children stricken in a county with more than 73,000 total residents.
But the good news is that there is a greater support mechanism in place to help those affected, including the Surry County Chapter of the Autism Society of North Carolina, which sponsors the annual walk.
The local organization contained just two people when her son was diagnosed, Soots said. “Now we have 65 people in our group,” which meets monthly.
When parents learn they have an autistic child, the doctor provides information and they also are put in contact with the group to tap into the various support services it offers to those who might think they have nowhere to turn.
With individualized treatment, education, and support, children and adults can improve and develop skills that will allow them to live and participate in the community, experts say.
“As a support group, we help each other, and things that might help my son may help others,” Soots added of its emphasis on sharing and assuring parents they are not alone.
“I feel like God has given me my son to help others,” the walk organizer said of her involvement.
“And I’m on a mission.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.