BY MICHELLE MILLER
Cooperstown will be among five sites kicking off Autism Awareness Month this Saturday.
Organizers are hoping to get twice as many people to take steps towards raising awareness and money to support local programs and services.
Last year, $20,000 was raised and about 250 people showed up to participate in the rain at the Sports Clark Center. This year, festivities will take place at Glimmerglass State Park.
``We had more than we anticipated last year so we are hoping to have 500 people this year,’’ said Lynn Watson, who is helping chair the Cooperstown event.
The Kelberman Center Walk for Autism is the initiative of a group of parents who hope to heighten awareness in their communities. According to spokeswoman Julie Batson, the goal is to raise needed funds that will stay in the area. She said the intent is to reach as many people as possible; therefore, the walk will take place simultaneously at five sites and another walk will be held in Boonville on Saturday, April 24.
Other sites the walk will be held this Saturday include New Hartford, Oneida, Utica, Rome and Holland Patent.
Batson said this is the second year the Kelberman Center has spearheaded community efforts in order to create more awareness about autism. The Kelberman at Upstate Cerebral Palsy in Utica is a regional center for excellence for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and related learning challenges. According to Batson, the center is dedicated to excellence in service through prompt evaluation and diagnosis, individualized education and services, social and life skills enhancement, innovative practices, training and research.
Beth Myers, associate executive director at of the Kelberman Center, said the walks are a wonderful way to spread autism awareness throughout communities.
``One in 110 children in the United States has autism, so this event is an effective way for families and communities to raise money to support the critical services that the Kelberman Center provides children and adults with autism spectrum disorder.’’
Participants with a minimum of $25 in pledges will receive the 2010 Walk for Autism T-shirt. Registration for the Cooperstown walk will begin at 9:30 a.m. Individuals will have the opportunity to participate in either 5K run or a 2-mile walk, both scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. People can register online by visiting kelbermancenter.org. The event will be held outdoors rain or shine, according to organizers.
Watson, who also helped chair the Cooperstown event last year, said Glimmerglass State Park is such a beautiful location to have the walk and run because of all the trails and paved walking areas.
``We wanted to get people out into our New York state parks with everything going on (economically with them) these days,’’ said Watson, of Cherry Valley.
Activities at the Cooperstown site will include free ice cream and a roast pork dinner (hot dogs too), face paintings, a 50/50 raffle and a Chinese auction. The dinner, which will be available at 11:30 a.m., will cost $7. To pre-order a dinner e-mail, coopwalkforautismdinner@gmail. com.
Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability and has touched most of us through a family member, friend or neighbor, said Batson.
Watson said her link to autism is through her son Ashton. She said when she told people her son was turning 7, it felt like the family was hitting a milestone because that meant autism had been a part of their life for five years.
``Five years ago, when Ashton lost all of his words and was diagnosed at the age of 2, Marc (her husband) and I were devastated as anyone would be,’’ said Watson. ``Our emotions ran the gamut and we were terrified.’’
After Ashton was diagnosed, the Watsons learned about the Upstate Cerebral Palsy programs First Steps & the Promise Program.
``We came to visit the program and have never left,’’ said Watson. ``Kelberman is our extended family.’’
Watson said she began attending Tuesday morning Coffee Club with Leslie Stephens because she wanted and needed to meet other mothers for additional support. She said she needed to know other moms who were going through the same types of trials, tribulations and emotions.
``I needed a safe place to obtain information as the internet at that point in time for us, as a young, scared couple, was terrifying when you typed in `autism,’’’ said Watson.
Watson said her son participated in the Otsego County Early Intervention Program before attending the Kelberman Center. Ashton is a Cherry Valley-Springfield student, but is part the autism support program at the Cooperstown Elementary. He is integrated into the mainstream firstgrade class at Cooperstown with typical peer children and a Kelberman trained aid.
Ashton still receives speech, occupational and physical therapy, but is independent for gym, music and art. Watson said her son still uses social stories on certain occasions.
``He talks with us about picture schedules and how they assist him when he is having tough days, and he is able to deep breathe to help him relax,’’ said Watson.
According to Watson, Ashton played fall soccer with the Cooperstown Soccer Club last year and is signed up for the spring league. She said Ashton also recently participated in a Cooperstown High School basketball clinic to benefit those with diabetes. Watson said she is hoping to enroll Ashton into the Kelberman’s autism camp for the first time this summer. She said the camp includes horseback riding and a swim program that looks to be very interesting.
Ashton, who is vocal, has progressed remarkably, according to Watson. ``We have such a great team supporting us and giving us advice along the way,’’ said Watson.
Watson said the staff are always sending materials home, such as social stories, so that she and Marc can help Ashton at home. It’s amazing how the little extra work really helps him, said Watson.
``Yes, it is extra work as a parent, but it is worth it,’’ said Watson.
``We are where we are today because we try to work with everyone as a team _ from the individuals we worked with at Early Intervention, to the individuals we work with at Kelberman, to Cherry Valley-Springfield (our home school), to the individuals at Cooperstown (who house the autism program and are Ashton’s teachers, BSA’s, etc. ),’’ added Watson.
Watson said she does not know of any local alternative options for children with autism because the Cooperstown program was created just in time for Ashton to begin kindergarten.
``We were so scared to put him in school, then the program opened and we felt like someone had blessed us with this option,’’ said Watson.
Watson said if the program at Cooperstown was not created, she and her husband would have had to look into other options in order to find ways to help their son.
Cooperstown School has provided a family-like setting much like the staff at the Kelberman Center and with the collaboration of both they have really done a nice job, said Watson.
According to CCS Superintendent Mary Jo McPhail, it would be more cost effective for the district to implement its own in-house autism program as compared to paying out of district tuition for students to attend elsewhere.
The program also provides neighboring districts a more cost effective option for students with autism.
Andrea Wissick, a special education teacher who works in the Primary Autism Support Classroom, said there was not a similar program offered in the area, so both the district and parents thought it would be a good idea to create one. She said CCS staff worked with the personnel at the Kelberman Center to develop a school-aged program.
``Ultimately, it became clear the best way to implement the program was through a partnership between CCS and the Kelberman Center,’’ she said.
``Our goal is to provide a quality and appropriate educational program for children with autism in our community.’’ added Wissick, who was hired specifically for the program.
Wissick said CCS has been able to develop a curriculum around each child. She said she and her colleagues use discrete trial training, a behaviorally- based technique, method of teaching.
``The program is a unique educational environment beyond a typical classroom setting to meet the individual academic and social needs of each child,’’ said Wissick.
``Most of the students receive primary instruction and goal work in our classroom.’’