Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” The Autism Speaks 5K/Fun Run is living proof that joint efforts and collaboration are powerful. More than 100 teams gather forces each year to run and walk for their brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, friends and school-mates — and also to support the drive to find a cure and better treatments for autism.
The teams, made up of runners/walkers of all ages represent swim clubs, schools, families, friends and companies; many participants have been touched by autism and want to help raise funds and awareness for this important cause.
One of the teams is “Richie’s Racers Team BOWA” captained by Steve Kirstein whose son, Richie is on the autistic spectrum and “is the driving force behind our initial involvement,” said Kirstein. “Richie was diagnosed at an early age (before 1) and is now 16 and thriving in the Montgomery County autism program at Churchill High. Ritchie participates in the 1-mile walk portion of the event and loves his Richie’s Racers shirt and wears it with pride.”
BOWA has been a sponsor for the Autism Speaks race for 10 years and the presenting sponsor for the past four years, including this year. The team draws more than 60 volunteers who race both at the Potomac run and remotely — in Dewey, Rehobeth and Middleburg. Over the years this team has raised more than $100,000 for Autism Speaks.
Kirstein explains what the race means to him and his team members: “This event is the most important day of my year, as autism is such a growing and concerning issue. Anything we can do to help raise awareness and acceptance within the community touches me personally and helps me feel like we are doing our part. I know my fellow team members concur.”
The July 4 Autism Speaks 5K/Fun Walk draws 1,600 to 1,800 racers each year to the heart of Potomac — people dedicated to helping the increasing numbers of children — and young adults who are on the autism spectrum. The latest numbers recently released by the Center for Disease Control indicate that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. are on the autism spectrum. This is an increase from the 1 in 88 number released two years ago by the CDC. Children with autism continue to be overwhelmingly male. According to the new report, the CDC estimates 1 in 42 boys has autism, 4.5 times as many as girls (1 in 189).
“The new statistics raise significant concerns about access to care, because autism is a lifelong disorder and the need for services only begins at diagnosis,” said Robert Ring, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks. "Behind these numbers are real people," he said. "Every one of these numbers is a family that's coming to terms with the implications of the diagnosis for the lifespan of their loved one. We need a plan to respond to these numbers, a national strategy for autism, and leadership has to come from Washington, because every congressional district is affected.”
Another team is led by Lauren Salzberg of Potomac for her son Justin. “Our team is called “Just for Justin,” she said. Justin, who is 15 years old, attends the Ivymount School where he is in the multiple learning needs program.
“We have been doing this race for as long as we can remember,” Salzberg said. “It has been amazing to see this event grow and more amazing to see our son Justin grow. Now he is able to participate and last year completed the walk on his own. He knows he has autism and is proud each year to participate. He knows this race is not only ‘Just for Justin’ but for all the other ‘Justins’ out there hoping for a cure for autism. Our team of friends and family walk and run with us year after year, and we are thankful to have such wonderful supporters.”
Salzberg’s company Potomac Lice Lady is a platinum sponsor of the race this year because “the event is so close to our hearts and Autism Speaks is such an amazing organization.
“We went through some very trying times, as most families living with a child with autism do. You take each day as it comes and live in the moment. You learn to set realistic yet hopeful goals and learn that sometimes you have to take a few steps backwards to get major steps ahead. It has not always been the easiest road for our family, but with love, support and guidance, especially from wonderful groups and people like those at Autism Speaks, success can be made. Early intervention is key and knowledge is golden. The more you can learn, the more you can do and achieve for your child.”
Wendy Kuhn and her family had participated on their church's team for a number of years and enjoyed it because it was an athletic event they could do together while at the same time helping a good cause. However, in 2010 when she became PTA president at Carderock Springs Elementary, the school had just moved into their newly renovated school which included three specially equipped classrooms for students with autism.
“The 12 children with autism were non-verbal and there was little opportunity to integrate the students with the mainstream student body,” Kuhn said. “Our principal and school counselor introduced a Best Buddies program whereby kids in grades 3-5 could spend their recess every other week serving as a buddy to kids in the autism program. One of the ways we also offered support was to participate in the Autism Speaks 5K. Our team, ‘Carderock Best Buddies,’ raises over $1,500 every year and we always have representation on race day from students and parents and staff. One year, one of the boys with autism wasn't feeling well, so my son (one of his best buddies) pulled him along the 1-mile walking course in a red wagon. They had a great time.
“My family and I continue to participate and look forward to the event every summer. I have made some special friendships and have selfishly benefited from my involvement with our team and our school program. I draw strength and courage from the kids and caregivers and parents whose everyday lives are affected by autism. I am hopeful that our medical professionals will soon find more answers for these families. The Autism Speaks 5K is appropriately held on July 4 as we celebrate our freedom and independence and stand united in our desire to help give autism some optimism.”
The coordinator of the Potomac Autism Speaks 5K/Fun Walk, Susan Pereles, became involved 14 years ago when her nephew was diagnosed with autism. She is dedicated to making this race one of the most successful Autism Speaks events in the U.S. “I am pleased that so many runners return year after year to our event and that we have dedicated teams who bring such spirit to our race,” she said. “We have participants from across the U.S. — and now with our Virtual 5K, you can register and support the cause from the comfort of your home, from your vacation spot, or through a bike ride, a mountain climb or a walk on the beach. Last year people registered from London, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Hawaii. You can sleep on your couch or run on a treadmill. Whatever you do, you will be helping our cause.”
Plan to participate in the July 4 Autism Speaks 5K/Fun Walk on July 4 – either in Potomac or virtually. The race will begin at the Potomac Public Library, 10101 Glenolden Drive in Potomac at 7:30 a.m. with a pre-warm-up and the road race begins at 8 a.m. The 1-mile walk will begin at 8:05. Register at www.autismspeaks.org/AutismSpeaks5K. Adults are $35 ($40 on July 4) and children 14 and under are $15. For more information or to donate, go to the website.