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Racing for Autism

July 4 marks 7th year of the Cure Autism Now 5K at Potomac Village.

The Fourth of July is filled with barbecues and pool parties, fireworks and sticky weather. In Potomac, activists use part of the day to increase awareness and raise money for autism research. The Cure Autism Now (CAN) 5-kilometer run/1-mile walk, now in its seventh year, is held on a U.S. Track and Field certified course. Warmups start at 7:30 a.m. and the race itself starts at 8:00 a.m., rain or shine. The finish of the race is celebrated with food, music and prizes. It is all over by 9:30 a.m.

In 2000, race founder Susan Pereles’ nephew, Shant Ayanian, was diagnosed with autism. Pereles, who has always been interested in children’s issues and health, wanted to help. That summer, Pereles became joined Cure Autism Now (CAN) and became a board member of the organization’s Mid-Atlantic chapter.

Pereles started the CAN 5K in 2001 to help raise awareness through an inclusive Fourth of July event.

"I felt very strongly that this should be an event where the whole family could participate. I didn’t want this to be a competitive event; I wanted everyone to be able to do this," said Pereles.

The race raised $100,000 in its first year, attracting about 1,200 people. Last year’s race attracted between 1,500 and 1,600 people, who helped bring the event’s six-year fundraising total to $800,000. Pereles hopes the event’s seven-year total will surpass $1,000,000. Right now she is $140,000 short of that goal.

"This is a team and individual event and this year we’re doing everything online, including fundraising. Once you register you can send e-mails to all your friends. All it takes is ten to twenty dollars. There are incentives to raise a lot of money — like nice jackets and duffel bags and gift certificates. The next few weeks are critical," said Pereles.

PERELES DOESN’T do this alone. Her supportive friends and neighbors have turned into a team of dedicated volunteers who make the race possible.

One race supporter and leader of three Girl Scout Troops, Maria Fusco, gets her scouts involved. Fusco’s troops make the event into a two day activity, with a backyard campout the night before the race. The participants rise to walk the course, ending at a lemonade stand right before the finish line. There, the girls help sell lemonade, the proceeds from which go to CAN, and cheer on the runners and walkers as they cross the finish. This will be their third year participating.

"My troops are very community oriented. We make up one of the largest service units," said Fusco, who likes to keep the troops going strong even after the school year ends.

This year the troop will participate as part of the Girl Scout Team, which consists of not only Fusco’s troops representing the Potomac Elementary School, but also troops at Norwood, Holton-Arms, Our Lady of Mercy, Carderock Springs Elementary, Seven Locks Elementary and other affiliated schools.

"The is a great way for involving individual scouts. They do not have to come with teams. You make a difference when you come [to the CAN 5K]. We strive to let the girls see their strength," said Fusco.

"I like the knowledge that I’m helping people who have a problem with their brain. I have friend in class who has autism," said Jennifer Holstein, 11, member of Fusco’s troop, who has a friend with autism in class.

"I think its great because I know someone with autism. I think its great to find a cure for it. That’s why I started to volunteer. It’s a perfect way to organize [the event] because people come have fun and raise money to find a cure," said Jonathan Silverman, 11, brother of Girl Scout Rachel Silverman, 9, who will be giving out water at the race.

Another race volunteer and participant, Semi Nasseri, has a son with autism.

"My youngest child is the reason that we started doing the CAN fundraiser. He’s gone from being severely autistic to where you’d probably not be able to tell that he’s autistic. We want to make sure that we get involved in any kind of fundraiser what will fund research to find the cure. When we did our first race it was so nice to see so many familiar people. I had no idea that so many people cared and cared enough to come out," said Nasseri.

TEN PERCENT OF registration fees go to Easter Seals Disabilities Services, a leading nonprofit provider of services for individuals with disabilities, including autism. Easter Seals offers professional services like early education and training, to families living with autism.

Money raised at the CAN 5K/1 Mile Walk is in part making the InterGenerational Center, currently under construction in Silver Spring, a reality. The Center "will service children, adults and seniors in partnership with county and many other public private partners, including CAN and their wonderful volunteer leaders, including Susan Pereles," wrote Lisa Reeves, president and CEO of Easter Seals Greater Washington-Baltimore Region, Inc. in a recent e-mail.

THIS YEAR’S RACE MARKS a significant milestone for autism. The CAN 5K co-sponsors, Cure Autism Now and Autism Speaks, both of which fund scientific research, announced a merger in February 2007. The combined organization, Autism Speaks, not only consolidates resources and capabilities of the two organizations, but also strengthens their joined ability to fund biomedical research and to increasing awareness of "the nation’s fastest-growing developmental disorder," according to the Autism Speaks Web site.

Autism is often difficult to diagnose, requiring numerous screenings. Characteristic features of autism include abnormal social interactions and obsessive routines and rituals. Since autism is a spectrum disorder the intensity and variety of these symptoms vary greatly.

"According to the Center for Disease Control, one in five hundred people are affected by autism, one in one hundred children have been diagnosed. Autism affects one in 94 boys. If you don’t know somebody with autism now, you’ll know someone in six months," said Pereles.