Editor's note: This is the first part of a three-part series exploring autism in the community.
Tonja Updike knows firsthand the special joys and challenges of raising an autistic child. Her son, Garrett, was diagnosed with autism about four years ago when he was 3 years old. When Garrett was first diagnosed, Updike said she felt isolated, and barely left her house because she did not know how to deal with his disability.
Now as a board member for the Autism Society of Alaska Golden Heart Chapter, Updike is committed to reaching out to other families with autistic children and raising awareness on the Kenai Peninsula.
"I want to make sure people understand autism is not a scary disability," she said.
At the second annual Autism Awareness Walk on Saturday at Skyview High School, more than 60 residents, including parents, caregivers, educators and professionals, walked to raise funds for autism services on the Kenai Peninsula. This was one of three similar events across the state that day bringing autism to the forefront.
Connie Best, who works for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in special education, said she walked for autism awareness on Saturday to support the cause.
"Autistic kids are my favorite kids to work with," she said. "I think you learn stuff with them every day."
April is national Autism Awareness Month and Updike, along with other society members, organized some special informational events and activities to spread the word about autism in the community.
Updike said the numbers for autism have been on the rise. Current statistics from theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention say that one in 110 children are diagnosed with autism, compared to the past numbers that recorded one in every 150 children.
"Every decade the numbers have increased drastically," she said, adding that on average, rates are higher for boys and military families.
While there are no hard numbers for autistic people on the central peninsula, Updike said she knows there are at least 100 students with autism in the local school system. Statewide, more than 1,000 people experience autism.
There are varying degrees of autism and other diagnoses like Asperger's syndrome and nonspecified developmental disorders, Updike explained.
"Most people think of 'Rain Man' when they think of autism," she said, but, "different kids have different needs."
Those needs can be addressed in several ways through community disability service agencies, therapy, school, diet and even with toys designed for sensory learning. These types of resources were available at informational tables during the Autism Awareness Walk.
Garrett is now 7 years old, and by addressing his needs with community resources and therapy, Updike has been able to work with her son's disability, something she said she hopes all families affected by autism are able to do, too.
For more information about Autism Awareness Month visit www.asagoldenheart.org.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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