Soldotna autism walk back with a bang

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Emma Updike, Tonja Updike, Emma Updike and Ellyce Woodward work at a craft table during the Autism Walk, Saturday, April 19, at Soldotna Middle School.

Not much walking actually happened during this year’s Soldotna Walk for Autism fundraiser. Running, bouncing and yoga were more common movements exerted by attendees on Saturday at Soldotna Middle School.


In the corner of the “quiet” themed gym, Kate Swaby held the hand of her son Owen as they went through a few poses during a yoga demonstration. Without much warning Owen would twist from his mothers grip, bolt across the gym and jump on a machine with pedals that simulated walking up stairs.

“If I have my flips flops, it’s a problem,” Swaby said smiling. “I have a hard time catching him.”

Owen’s father Keith looked on unfazed. Seconds later Swaby coaxed him back onto the mat to tryout a few more positions.

Swaby said Owen, who is autistic and cannot verbally communicate, tends to have trouble in crowded areas and working with groups of strangers. She said Owen becomes over stimulated in public.

When he’s playing, bending and crouching are easy tasks, but when asked to do a certain move, he freezes up, Swaby said. Practicing yoga may help him improve control over his movements, she said.

Two hours into the autism walk, Owen was still willing to participate in the activities, Swaby said. Owen often has a hard time focusing for periods that long, she said, but having activities run by volunteers who know how to interpret his reactions made a difference, she said.

Susan Mathews, who works at Kenai Kids Therapy in Soldotna, said many families use the autism walk as a place to bring their children where they can comfortably enjoy themselves. She said a common aim for attendees is the desire to raise awareness within the community.

Usually the parents are well versed in the actions of their children, but publicly people often react with shock and confusion, Mathews said. Helping people understand the difference between a kid acting out and a child dealing with Autism is important to discern, she said.

“You can frequently tell by the parent’s face,” Mathews said. “Their look says, ‘I am handling my kid. It’s OK don’t worry’.”

Holding an autism walk locally is invaluable, said volunteer Zita Carrasco, who manned the sensory room for walkers if they became over stimulated and needed a break. It makes it so much harder if families have to travel all the way to Anchorage, she said.

Tonja Updike, local spokeswoman for the Autism Society of Alaska, and Jerri Braun, organized the walk. The pair revived the event after a three-year hiatus. Updike had headed the first few events, but such an undertaking was overwhelming on her own, she said. Having Braun organizing as well made it doable again.

“It was my idea to bring it back with a bang,” Braun said. She said many community members told her they dearly missed the event.

This year Braun and Updike added a number of new activities to the program, including carnival games, yoga, cake walks, ring toss, a bounce house and optional sensory stations around the walking course, where people can pause and experience similar physical sensations of someone with autism.

“Nothing like this has been done in the state,” Updike said.

While recent research on the autism spectrum has provided some new insight into the number of people affected by the neurodevelopment disorders, the focus of the walk is to provide people with education on the actual characteristics, Updike said.

Living in a community that doesn’t have much understanding for people with autism can feel very isolating, Updike said. So much of the daily experience with autism can be negative; the event is a full day about seeing the positives, she said.

The 2014 walk raised $4433.50 from early cash donations, and the close to 100 attendees, Updike said.

Knowledge can result in compassion and understanding, she said.


Kelly Sullivan can be reached at






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