April is Autism Awareness Month and last weekend the local Autism Society, headed up by Community Liaison Tonja Updike held the 2nd Annual Alaska Walk for Autism at Skyview High school. "April 2nd was actually World Autism Awareness Day but for the whole month we have been incorporating different activities to build local awareness in our community," Tonja Updike told the Dispatch. The Autism Society of America Golden Heart Chapter (ASA) serves people experiencing Autism in the state of Alaska. Updike says the walk at Skyview was a fundraiser for the local Golden Heart Chapter as well an awareness building activity. "We had a variety of agency tables set up with information on everything having to do with Autism in the state of Alaska. And we had sensory activities for the children in the gymnasium in addition to the walking areas," she said.
According to Tonja, there is a rising epidemic of Autism across the nation. "The numbers have risen drastically. Autism use to affect one child of every 150 nationally, but just this year that number has increased to one child in every 110, and no one has a reason for the increase yet. But there a lot of scientific studies underway researching the genetic aspects of it, as well as environmental factors. But thus far there is no explanation why we have Autism or why it's increasing. So we are concentrating on awareness building in the community, because autistic kids are becoming more prevalent in Alaska and in our school systems and we want to be sure people understand what that means. Autism can look very different, it's a spectrum disorder meaning that there are very high functioning autistic's and there are very low functioning aut istic's, liking different things and are treated in different manners. They are not all like the character in the movie "Rainman". The common denominator is they have issues communicating and have social interaction problems, and may do things that seem odd to other people and have special interests that are different but that they become totally absorbed with," she explained.
Updike has three children, with the middle child being diagnosed autistic. "Anyone can have an autistic child regardless of genetic background. The odds are the same for everyone. When you learn your child is autistic, there is what I call a grieving process, that includes denial, anger, and frustration from wanting to be able to blame something or somebody. But there is no blame or reason that we know of yet, why children are born with autism," she said. Updike credits the Infant Learning program with helping them through the process, "We were fortunate, but Infant Learning is only from 0-3 years of age, so it's an extremely frustrating process for folks who don't get the help they need early-on and discover the disorder after the child enters the school system. We are very fortunate here, in that our school district is very accommodating in providing services and working with parents who tell them there child is autistic. But outside of school there are still a lot of times when you have to learn to deal with the child in public, and that's what our organization works to bridge that gap with services," said Updike.
Updike is a member of the Governor's Council on Special Education and Disability for the State of Alaska and is happy to help local families get in touch with agencies that provide resources to families with autistic children. For more information visit www.asagoldenheart.org or phone Soldotna Community Liaison Tonja Updike at 260-6933, or Chapter president Heidi Haas at 907-374-4421.
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