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Oaks Park walk raises funds and awareness for Autism Society

by: David F. Ashton, Miss Oregon of 2006, Donilee McGinnis, draws another winning ticket at the event.

Because of ignorance - or fear - some people turn away from families or individuals caring for an individual with 'Autism Spectrum Disorder' (ASD).

'The mission of our organization is to empower individuals with autism, their families, and their service providers, to improve the quality of their lives through support and information,' explained Genevieve Athens, Executive Director for the Autism Society of Oregon.

Athens was at Oaks Park on April 13th - along with 2,500 individuals - for the 6th annual 'Autism Walk-A-Thon' at Oaks Amusement Park. It's an event she created to help increase understanding about autism in Portland, during Autism Awareness Month.

'It's important for people to realize that autism is the fastest-growing disability in the United States,' Athens said. 'Oregon has the third-highest rate of autism in the country, with one in 88 kids on the autism spectrum - compared with the national average, which is one in 150.'

Autism, Athens explained, is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. It is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the brain's function.

Although the disorder is four times more prevalent in boys than girls, we learned that autism knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, and educational levels do not affect the chance of autism's occurrence.

At the walkathon, former Seattle Seahawks football star Curt Warner took a break from autographing shirts and memorabilia to say he enjoys supporting the event. 'On a personal note, we have twin boys with autism. That's why supporting the society's work is near and dear to our hearts.'

As participants - each wearing their distinctive event T-Shirt - swirled around exhibits at the outdoor pavilion, Athens said she was pleased at the turnout. 'We have a record crowd this year; that's important, because this is one of our largest fundraisers of the year.'

The Autism Society uses these funds to support its resource network, which puts together support groups, workshops, and seminars in support of family members and caregivers who care for an individual on the autism spectrum.

'We help people get in touch with all of the education and professional services they need,' Athens added. 'And, some of the money that we raised today goes to summer camp scholarships for underprivileged children on the autism spectrum.'

In addition to raising awareness about autism, Athens said events like these help show families with autistic children that they are not isolated. 'Here, they see they're not the only ones experiencing these issues. And, they learn that there is a community ready to help support them.'

Volunteer Donilu McGinnis took a break from selling raffle tickets to tell us her family has been involved with the event for five years.

'My son, David, is on the autism spectrum,' McGinnis said. 'When we first came here, it was really neat, because we felt like were 'home'. My daughter, Donilee, was Miss Oregon in 2006. Her platform was autism awareness and advocacy.'

Beyond the walkathon, McGinnis said the society helps those with the disorder feel that they're 'not alone. You meet people who understand, and have things in common with you. You know that if there's something you're concerned about, you can call the autism Society and they'll direct you to a resource or answer your question.'

'We have ongoing needs for volunteers,' Athens said. 'To learn more about our organization, see our web site at www.oregonautism.com or call 503/636-1676.