Sunday, August 16, 2009

8.16.09: Running/Walking on the Ocean for Autism

My August Challenge was a day at the Beach, the 5K Beach Challenge for Autism Speaks, which was held Aug. 15 in Ocean City, N.J.

This was an extremely personal cause for me. I spent three years as a nanny for a boy named Joe with Autism. Joe was a mystery -- able to do math that would make my head spin, a genius when it came to Star Trek trivia but had trouble with some of the most simple social interactions like when to shake someone's hand. Attending festivals, which were too loud and overstimulating, or shopping at a mall were enough for a meltdown. At the core, he is sweet and good even if he is often misunderstood.

Autism Speaks ( is committed to raising public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families, and society, and to giving hope to all who deal with the hardships. The organization hopes to raise $30 million for autism research and programs this year, a spokeswoman at the event said.

It is a growing issue. One in 150 children are diagnosed with Autism nation wide. In my home state, New Jersey, the Autism rate is especially high: 1 in 94.

Katie Kohler plans the beach run/walk event around low tide, which leaves a sturdy hard-packed sand for the runners. The added bonus is the ocean's gallery of seashells, crabs and other sea-things left behind by the waves.

Kohler's sister is a special education teacher. Her friend has an Autistic child. Mostly, Kohler -- a marathoner -- plans the event each year to give back to the community. This was the third event, and attendance has more than tripled to 360 participants since she started it.

I went alone, but ended up walking with a woman named Carolyn, who also struggles with her weight. She has a grandson with Autism. She walked for him. I walked for Joe.