The numbers are staggering, including one of every 59 children born having some form of autism — but fortunately, efforts to combat the problem are just as plentiful, judging by a walk Saturday in Mount Airy.
Event Director Bridget Soots was hard-pressed to even come up with a number for the crowd filling Riverside Park in anticipation of the seventh-annual Surry Walk for Autism.
“I’m just going to say thousands,” Soots finally said while surveying the gathering before the trek along the Ararat River Greenway — a show of unity and support highlighted by teams named after local youths with autism.
About 2,200 people officially had signed up to participate, which included buying blue T-shirts for the occasion, but more showed up Saturday without shirts who also wanted to support the cause.
“Wow, look at all that blue,” Soots said from a stage during a pre-walk program.
The support exhibited Saturday not only manifested itself in terms of massive numbers of people, but dollars raised for autism needs in Surry County, including extra training for teachers to better deal with autistic students.
“We’re at $60,000 right now,” Soots said Saturday morning, with other proceeds still to be tallied at that point.
Perhaps just as important as the money was the opportunity provided by the Surry Walk for Autism — one of similar events being held nationwide during Autism Awareness Month — to increase public consciousness of those touched by the condition.
“It’s a growing number,” Soots said of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which a child is diagnosed with every 20 minutes on average.
“In the state of North Carolina, it’s more prevalent than other states,” the 2108 walk director added of autism, a brain disorder that impacts communication, social interaction and behavior. It affects one’s ability to understand what is seen, heard and otherwise sensed, with boys having a greater tendency to be autistic than girls.
“It’s their day to come together,” Soots said of families dealing with autism, “and we do have rough times.” Autism is estimated to cost each family more than $1.5 million over the lifetime of a loved one.
“We come together to be together and show our support,” Soots added of the intent behind Saturday’s walk, which included assuring affected families they are not alone and that someone cares.
Blake Dollyhite, a resident of Blue Hollow Road, wore a T-shirt for “Team Wyatt,” named for Dollyhite’s 3-year-old brother with autism. Wyatt was among those present, said his older sibling, who thought “being involved” was important for Wyatt.
In addition to traversing the greenway, participants had a chance to browse informational and vendor stations representing 41 organizations altogether.
This included entities that provide services to the autistic population, including Behavioral Services Inc.; the University of North Carolina TEACCH Autism Program, with that acronym referring to children with communication handicaps; Surry County Schools; and the Autism Society of North Carolina, of which the Surry chapter sponsored Saturday’s walk.
Reason for hope
A carnival atmosphere prevailed on the grounds of the city park, which also included music provided by a DJ and several speakers who offered their observations on autism.
The overall message seemed to be that the rest of society understands what is going on and is committed to helping.
Emily Summey, director of the Exceptional Children’s Program of Surry County Schools, told the crowd how that program has been partnering with the Surry Autism Society for more than five years.
During that period, proceeds from the walk have led to $60,000-plus being injected into the school program to pay for special training and collaborations for teachers to deal with the special needs of autistic youths. This includes ways to keep them active and engaged.
“So we greatly appreciate the Autism Society for helping us build our capability to better serve students,” Summey said.
The walk proceeds also provide training for parents, respite care to families, help for those in need for medical reasons and will enable local autistic individuals to attend a summer camp.
Soots, the event director, said one of the purposes Saturday from the standpoint of public awareness was emphasizing that the earlier autistic children receive treatment the better their situations will be later in life.
Area companies also are tuned into autism awareness, including Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH) of Jonesville, where Tammy Singletary works.
In addition to the distinction of being the mother of an autistic son, Cadyn, 7, a Singletary-led team sold the most T-shirts of any group participating, 181. Along with sponsorship contributions from a number of businesses, shirt sales were a major part of the fundraising for the walk.
“They’re all about supporting a lot of different (charities),” Singletary said of PVH. That included Saturday’s event, which fellow employees were eager to support by buying T-shirts or being on the walk team, something Singletary thinks was noteworthy given her “minority” status.
“I’m the only parent that works there with a child with autism,” she explained, which hasn’t deterred support from company officials and others. “They just love Cadyn.”
The city government of Mount Airy was represented at Saturday’s program by Commissioner Jim Armbrister, who read a municipal proclamation honoring the special day.
“I urge all our citizens to participate in the fight for a cure for autism,” Armbrister told the assemblage.
A special speaker for the program also offered the perspective of a young man with autism who has not let that keep him from being successful in life, DJ Svoboda. He is a motivational speaker from Cary who has attended the Mount Airy event for five years.
Svoboda, also an artist and the author of three books, is well known as the creator of “The Imagifriends of Imagiville,” which is based on experiences he faced growing up and living with autism.
“Those with autism of any age just want to be appreciated for who they are,” the enthusiastic Svoboda told the crowd.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.