Thousands walk to highlight autism

Article Tab: Team Sprouts is first to cross the starting line at the 2013 Walk Now for Autism Speaks on Saturday at the Orange County Great Park.

Team Sprouts is first to cross the starting line at the 2013 Walk Now for Autism Speaks on Saturday at the Orange County Great Park.

IRVINE – The old, empty runways at the former El Toro military base became walkways Saturday morning for about 9,000 advocates for autism programs and research during the 10th annual Orange County Walk Now for Autism Speaks at the Great Park.

Families and friends of autistic people from around Southern California formed 100 teams and, according to Autism Speaks, raised approximately $258,000. Organizers said the walk is intended to underscore the challenges posed by autism.

Autism refers to a range of cognitive developmental disabilities that can cause mild to severe social and behavioral problems. This spectrum includes Asperger Syndrome, a milder form of “classic” autism that usually doesn’t cause intellectual or language impediments.

Boys are five times more likely to develop a form of autism than girls and about one in 88 children have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Natalie Cousens, of Los Angeles, said she felt helpless when her 3-year-old son, Finn, was diagnosed with autism.

“You spend so much effort trying to get services and trying to get help and not knowing what to do, because no one knows what to do when that diagnosis happens – it’s nice to turn it into something positive,” Cousens said.

The family’s team, “Fight for Finn,” raised about $29,000, more than any other team of walkers, according to Autism Speaks.

Such fundraising events should stress that responding to autistic needs early in a child’s life may dramatically improve their overall development, said Brian Gutierrez, who sits on the State Council on Developmental Disabilities and is autistic himself.

“I was 14 when I was diagnosed with autism – a late start,” Gutierrez said. “As long as you give them the resources they need, anyone could become successful, no matter what disability they have.”

Over the last 10 years, 34 states have passed insurance reform laws relating to autism, said Matt Asner, executive director of Southern California for Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization.

“We’re still at the bottom of the hill,” he said. “We know what needs to be done and every day we need to get further up that hill. Walks like this help us do that.”

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