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Potomac Doubles Up on Autism Fund-Raisers

Regional autism walk Oct. 15 expected to draw thousands.

When Beth Eisman and her family go to restaurants, they have to take two cars in case Eisman’s daughter Dana, who has autism, acts up and needs to be taken home.

Making such accommodations for Dana, 15, is second-nature to Eisman. Keeping regular schedules, taking an extra car, bringing gluten-free food to the restaurant — those are the easy things. Harder is coping with the emotional toll of Dana’s disability. Harder is being Beth Eisman — and being Dana.

“I walk my dog every morning, at 6 in the morning and half the time I’m crying to myself during the walk,” said Eisman, a Potomac resident. “You just want to say why me, why my family? …  I just want answers. It’s like being robbed of your child. Kidnapped. Your child is kidnapped.”

But things are changing.

Autism is on the rise, but so are early-intervention treatments, therapies, and research that Eisman said she is hopeful will bring an end to autism within Dana’s lifetime.

Eisman is doing her part. She is chair of the inaugural Baltimore/Washington, D.C. WALK NOW 5K walk to raise money for Cure Autism Now, a national autism research non-profit.

The event is expected to draw 2,000-4,000 people to FedEx field in Landover, Md. Saturday, Oct. 15, and could raise $1 million.

Many Potomac residents are familiar with Cure Autism Now thanks to the five-year-old Fourth of July 5K race in Potomac Village, organized by Potomac resident Susan Pereles.

The WALK NOW event differs in both atmosphere and scale. The July Fourth race is a competitive event that now includes a shorter fun walk, but the FedEx field event is completely non-competitive and geared towards families. The flat course around the stadium will be suitable for strollers and wheelchairs. Inside there will be food, moonbounces and other diversions, and a resource fair for parents of children with autism.

WALK NOW is Cure Autism Now’s national fund-raising event model, held in 13 U.S. cities in 2005 and expanding to 16 in 2006. Collectively, the events have raised more than $5 million in the last two years.

The Oct. 15 walk is considered a regional event, though Eisman said she and other organizers have had to work hard to draw participants down from Baltimore, where she said the autism community is more diffuse.

Still, Eisman keeps hearing the same thing: “I have a niece that’s autistic, my next door neighbor, my friend’s son. It’s one in 166. It’s no matter where you go.”

“When I was growing up, nobody had autism. You just didn’t know anybody,” said Daniel Pereles, Susan Pereles’ husband and a member of Cure Autism Now’s national board of directors. “Lots and lots of families … certainly either have friends or family that have autistic kids. If you don’t know somebody now with autism, you will.”

The increasing incidence of autism is a concern, but it has also resulted in a larger, more cohesive, and more dedicated autism community.

When Dana was diagnosed, Eisman said doctors had little advice except not to compare Dana to her older child without disabilities and to “go home.”

“It was like walking in the dark. And now at least there’s people with flashlights, helping, trying,” she said.

Friends say that it’s people like Eisman who are leading the way.

“She is an incredible leader and incredible resource to us,” said Christi Dabney, marketing manager for WALK NOW.

“[This] is turning out to be one of our largest inaugural events and one of our largest walks in 2005,” Dabney said. “She’s been the main driving force behind that.”

“Beth is a dynamo,” Daniel Pereles said. “Nobody’s harder working than she is. It’s a Herculean task.”