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Filling a Need

Fairfax couple creates social organization for families with autistic children.

As much as Christopher Butzgy loves his 5-year-old son Jacob, he concedes that it's hard for the family to go out. Jacob, who is autistic, likes to scream or move around a lot. His breakdowns are met with stares and frustration from other people.

So when the family had the opportunity to see a movie together without worrying about disrupting the people around them, Butzgy couldn't believe it.

"This was just exciting to the nth degree," said the Falls Church resident. Jacob "had such a good time. Ironically, he did sit down for a bit."

The Butzgys felt comfortable because they went to see "Finding Nemo" with other families who have autistic children. The movie screening was sponsored by an organization called "Autistic Children Movies and Entertainment Together," or "ACME Together," like the explosives company that Wile E. Coyote uses.

THE AIM of ACME Together is to create social events for other families with autistic children throughout the metropolitan area, so the children can learn to socialize and the parents can learn to relax, according to the Fairfax couple that founded the group.

"It's an opportunity to shape the behavior, to get ready for a movie theater with peers your age. It's a good place to shape social skills," said Gretchen Ortega.

The idea to create social outings occurred after the Ortegas were asked to leave a movie theater because of their 4-year-old autistic son, Nicholas. Nicholas' father, Fidel, went onto the bulletin board section of the Autism Society in America Web site and asked other area families about seeing a movie. He received 30 e-mails and subsequently worked with Fairfax's Cinema Arts Theatre to screen "Finding Nemo" in February.

He was surprised by the response. One hundred people showed up for that first event.

"Social skills are one of the things most affected by autism. And there really aren't many resources," said Fidel Ortega. "We're filling a need that hasn't been filled."

His wife agreed that meeting other families helps both children and parents alike.

"It's not just your child who starts expressing odd behavior," Gretchen Ortega said.

WITH THAT first success under their belts, the Ortegas arranged a second event in Arlington: a dinner at Mexicali Blues. The families who attended that event came from as far away as Stafford County, Va., and Ellicott City, Md.

Because waiting can be hard for autistic children, the food was served fast and hot.

"A lot of parents were grateful about that," said Fidel Ortega.

While activities for children with disabilities exist through private organizations and through Fairfax County, social outings for children with autism, or "autistic spectrum disorders," are not common.

Displays of autism can differ in degree and range from nonverbal or unusual behaviors and sensitivities to learning disabilities.

"What a lot of them have is a communication delay in language," said Lynne Ryan, with the Autism Society of America, Northern Virginia chapter.

By having a social group for autistic children, they can learn social skills at their own pace, Ryan continued.

"It fills a need, first of all, for children to have activities," Ryan said. "Second, it also gives families an opportunity to meet each other, because having a child with autism can be an isolating experience."

With June activities planned, the Ortegas hope to find two people in each Washington area county to help them organize future events, so the number and frequency of events can increase. Right now, between the birth of their new baby and taking care of Nicholas, the husband and wife arrange outings out of their Fairfax home. Proceeds of past events have gone toward event costs.

In June, ACME Together is hosting a movie screening of "Monsters, Inc."; another dinner at Mexicali Blues; a trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.; and a dinner at Fuddruckers in Annapolis, Md.

The group's Holy Grail is to arrange a trip to Disneyworld.

"I probably can't say enough of what an amazing experience it was," said Butzgy of the movie screening. "It's just so rare that Jacob and I could do something together, out and about, with no need of explanations."