If you have a child on the autism spectrum, Pete Schwartz and other volunteers with the Autism Society of Southern Arizona want you to know that its upcoming walk and resource fair is for you.
If you don’t have a child on the spectrum, it is also for you, since it is likely that you have — or in the future will have — a classmate or student, colleague, friend or family member who is living with autism.
“With an incidence rate of one in 64 births in Arizona, autism doesn’t just affect individuals and their parents but also siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It also has an impact — and not necessarily in a bad way — on school systems, neighborhoods and the entire community,” said Schwartz, coordinator of the 11th Annual Autism Walk & Resource Fair on April 1.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 3½ million Americans are living on the autism spectrum. Symptoms are wide-ranging and can include language delay, lack of interaction, lack of spontaneous or make-believe play, repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms and an inability to meet typical milestones in playing, learning, moving and speaking.
Autism can’t be diagnosed by a medical test: Diagnosis occurs through developmental screening and a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation of behavior.
Though there is no cure for the disorder, early identification is key, according to Schwartz. While the cost of autism is estimated at $3.2 million per person over a lifespan, that cost can be reduced by two-thirds with early intervention according to the Autism Society.
“Autism affects everyone differently and our goal at the Autism Society is to provide people with resources. Our slogan is ‘Improving the lives of all affected by autism,’ and families can go home from events like the walk and resource fair with a wealth of information, resources and connections to help them.
“They also have the opportunities to visit with 60 vendors and experts in the field and to ask questions and connect with other families, which is really exciting,” said Ray Frieders, a member of the Board of Directors for the Autism Society of Southern Arizona.
Schwartz personally understands the importance of early intervention: His son, Tyler, was diagnosed at age 3 and received applied behavioral analysis along with speech and occupational therapies. Now 15, he is finishing eighth grade and enjoying school, although he still faces challenges.
“Without a doubt, it can be challenging, although the rewards are fantastic as well. The highs are really high and we tend to appreciate things that other parents may not. We have a typically developing daughter who is 16, so we see both sides,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz emphasized that connecting with other parents is a great source of support and the Autism Society provides an ideal avenue.
“I have found from experience that most parents find it very helpful to hear a couple of things: First, that it is tough for other people. Sometimes parents feel like they are going through this alone, and to hear that others are dealing with the same struggles is helpful. It is also helpful to hear to hear success stories, like those about a child who had these issues in school and is now 19 and going to college. It is motivational to realize that just because a child has delays, that doesn’t mean it is always going to be that way,” he said.
Frieders said the Autism Society offers a multitude of valuable educational tools, including a website with reputable online information, a lending library with hundreds of resources, and numerous workshops and classes. Nearly all services and programs are free.
Among these is the popular speaker series for parents, professionals and students. The free series of Saturday lectures, which is open to the public, features experts broaching a broad range of topics. The lectures are held at Intermountain Academy, 1100 W. Fresno St. Registration is on-site and begins at 9 a.m.; the two-hour programs follow at 9:30 a.m.
The Autism Society provides programs tailored to children of all ages on the autism spectrum and their families, including offerings such as LEGO Club, Sonoran Dolphin Swim Club, Sensory Friendly Films and Purrs for Autism, a partnership with Hermitage Cat Shelter that provides pet therapy. Partnerships with the University of Arizona also provide science, technology, engineering and art camps.
The organization also offers teen meet-ups and a peer-led social club for adults over age 18 who are on the spectrum; other support services include resources for parents, siblings and professionals .
“There is something for everyone,” said Frieders.