Area events bring autism awareness to forefront
With the number of diagnosed autism cases on the rise around the country — and with North Carolina's diagnosis rate even greater than the national average — awareness about the developmental disorder is growing.
Such awareness levels are also helped by orchestrated efforts. April has been designated Autism Awareness Month, and Tuesday was World Autism Awareness Day. People driving on Tramway Road in Lee County may have noticed blue lights adorning SanLee Middle School on Tuesday — which was done for autism awareness — and hundreds of autistic people from around the state came to a Chatham County camp to mark the day as well.
Camp Royall, nestled in the woods on the southern outskirts of Pittsboro, is the official camp of the Autism Society of North Carolina. It includes a swimming pool, a gym, a lake for boating and an arts and crafts pavilion, plus cabins for week-long summer camps — all of it tailored specifically for children and adults who fit somewhere on the autism spectrum.
People in Lee County seeking help with an autistic family member are invited to attend the local support group, which meets next at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 13, at Tramway Baptist Church. Laurie McCauley, a teacher at SanLee who helped get the blue lights installed, is also helping organize that group.
Autism is a neurological disorder, often characterized by difficulties with social and communication skills, that can be mild, moderate or severe. Nationwide, about one out of every 88 school-aged children has been diagnosed with some form of the disorder, such as Asperger syndrome. In North Carolina, one recent study found that one in 70 suffer from some form of autism; another found that one in 50 have been diagnosed as autistic.
But no matter how widely various studies differ, officials from the Autism Society of North Carolina said Tuesday that having a camp is beneficial. Betty Camp and Mary Lou Warren, who have been lobbying for increased autism awareness (and state funding) since the early 1970s and who were instrumental in founding the camp, were on hand Tuesday and telling stories about their experiences and the changes they've seen in the last four decades.
"Our first week of camp, we had about five, maybe seven, kids in a tent in a the woods," Warren said with a laugh before gesturing around the large, air-conditioned hall in which she was sitting, one of several buildings on the 133-acre site. "Now look at what we've got."
Warren said she and Camp came up with the idea for an autism-focused summer camp because there were no other opportunities appropriate for their kids. And although many trials and tribulations followed throughout the years, Camp said, she never doubted their mission to help children develop and give parents a small respite.
"The Lord was with us all the time because we were doing the right thing," Camp said. "Nobody was helping these kids. ... And that was the main focus that we had — that they deserved to be around other children."
Tracey Sheriff, the society's chief executive officer, said the group and its camp are still doing the work Camp and Warren started four decades ago. Not counting the 300 or 400 who showed up Tuesday, he said, the summer camp hosts about 1,000 kids each summer, and the group's other various services — everything from direct care to counseling, training and more — reach about 11,000 people every year.
But the most important issue, he said, remains advocacy work.
"There's really something special about being a parent (of an autistic child) and being able to talk to another parent about it," Sheriff said.
But it's not just parents who connect through the group. At the camp Tuesday, a group of young children were coloring with chalk on the sidewalk when one mom told her daughter it was about time to go. Drawing one last picture, 4-year-old Carsyn Ward turned to the girl next to her, 3-year-old Anna Perkins, and asked: "Can we be best friends?"
"OK," came the answer, with no hesitation whatsoever.
What: Lee County autism support group
When: Next meeting is 10 a.m. Saturday, April 13
Where: Tramway Baptist Church