Fourth-grader channels his spirit to raise awareness, funding for children with autism

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Dominick Johnsen, a 10-year-old Barnes Elementary student, is involved in a variety of activities to raise awareness and funding for autism research.From a young age, Dominick Johnsen seemed different.

He was unable to make eye contact. Loud noises visibly irritated him. Whenever he was in an unstructured or potentially uncomfortable environment, Dominick was palpably nervous and agitated.

While his brothers struggled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, his father, Chris, felt that somehow didn’t fit.

Having coffee and doughnuts with his family after Catholic Mass one day, Chris couldn’t help but notice the mannerisms of a 15-year-old son of a friend from church who he recalled was diagnosed with autism.

“Everything clicked at that point,” Chris says, noting the boy seemed “out of focus. It was like looking at a future Dom. He was literally like an older version of Dominick.”

He began gathering pamphlets and information about autism and its related Asperger syndrome, characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

The then 5-year-old Dominick underwent a series of tests at Oregon Health Sciences University, which confirmed his father’s hunch. Rather than fret or wring their hands, Chris and Dominick’s mother, Kristy, took the practical view and set about enlightening themselves and their children about the autism spectrum.

“We were educating ourselves,” Chris says. “We had to realize we had to change the way we go about doing things.”

Five years later, Dominick’s family has basically mastered the art of preparation and routine — particularly reducing spontaneous or surprising events that might make Dominick uncomfortable.

“We can’t drive to the coast without preparation and warning,” Chris says. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, by the way, next Wednesday we’re going to the coast. He knows he can look at it. That’s the biggest piece for him — the structure, knowing what’s coming. Having no surprises avoids a meltdown.”by: TIMES PHOTOS: JOHN LARIVIERE - Doug Pleasants (left) watches the spinning wheel with Team Dominic event organizer Chris Johnsen to find out what song he will sing during a karaoke challenge at the Sports Page.

These days, Dominick, a Barnes Elementary fourth-grader, focuses less on keeping his condition under control than doing all he can to raise awareness and funding for autism.

Gearing up for the Walk Now for the Autism Speaks organization fundraising event at Alpenrose Dairy on Sunday, Aug. 17, Dominick and his family on April 5 held a Karaoke-A-Thon at the Sports Page, 8590 S.W. Hall Blvd., in Beaverton. Chris, also known as “Cable Guy Chris,” served as the evening’s master of ceremonies, belting out tunes when the groove struck him. Participants collected pledges ahead of time to sing songs of their choice in honor of Dominick. Anyone in the crowd could donate $5 to make any amateur vocalist in attendance sing a song of their choosing, or $2, $5 or $10 depending on how frequently they wanted to TIMES PHOTOS: JOHN LARIVIERE - Rick Null of Beaverton signs 'Calling All Angels' as part of the Team Dominic fundraiser for Autism Speaks at the Sports Page in Beaverton.

While Dominick was too young to be in the packed bar that night, his sprit was well represented. Nearly 80 people joined in to raise around $2,800 to support Team Dominick in the fundraising walk this summer.

“We had his pictures up, his biography and a lot of Autism Speaks literature available,” Chris says. “It was pretty cool.”

The details aren’t yet finalized, but the next fundraiser will be a car wash likely held the first weekend in June.

This is the sixth year of the Walk Now event, and the third year the

Johnsen family has sponsored Team Dominick.

Chris says his family has been active in helping children with special needs since Everett, his 13-year-old son, has been in school. Working with the Autism Speaks organization is a natural outgrowth of the family’s commitment to education, awareness and raising money for medical research.

“It’s something we want to be part of that we could make a difference in,” he says. “Knowing we’re going to help a child like Dominick is a great feeling. We like to go out and do these things.”

Dominick, who Chris admits “can’t lie to save his life,” has come a long way in his ability to express himself and apply himself to TIMES PHOTOS: JOHN LARIVIERE - Rick Sohler of Beaverton sings 'Drift Away' as part of the Team Dominic fundraiser for Autism Speaks at the Sports Page in Beaverton.

“He has a little more ownership in his disability,” he says, noting his son finds novel ways of learning and gleaning knowledge. “He’ll watch an episode of a game show repeatedly and plays along with it. To him, he’s getting knowledge. He’ll yell, ‘I’m winning the game! Yeah!’ ”

While his family members handle the finer points of the fundraising events at this point, Dominick couldn’t be prouder of serving as a symbol and focal point for children with autism and similar disorders.

“The walk itself he really enjoys,” Chris says. “When the (Team Dominick) banner is up, he’s very proud of that. The T-shirts we’ve made, he’s proud about that. It’s a big pride thing for him, and he’s really enjoyed it.”

There is one thing that’s not so positive, however.

“He’s not pleased that pink is going to be one of the (walk) colors.”

For more information about Walk Now for Autism Speaks on Sunday, Aug. 17, visit TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Dominick Johnsen, 10, is raising awareness and funding to research autism with help from his brother, Noah, 7, and his dad, Chris.

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