Any step forward is big step when battling disability

This article was originally published in North County News.

The lanky 11-year-old, flanked by a classmate and a second-grader, quietly faced his audience of 250 middle school peers. “We are here to today to talk about one thing,” Austin declared. “Autism.”

As his younger siblings held up accompanying posters, Austin’s partners stated the astonishing facts: “Autism is on the rise.

Twenty years ago, one in 10,000 children were diagnosed with autism. Today it is one in 500.

“Autism is a local concern: Since 1993, the incidences of autism has increased 640% in Baltimore County.”

The silent audience shuffled politely into puzzled uneasiness. More facts flashed as the presenting team clarified the mystery, lighting up the gray picture of the disorder so often misunderstood.

Autism is a disorder of the brain with no known cause or cure.

Autism is the third most common developmental disability.

There is no medical test that detects autism.

Parents and professionals rely on behavioral symptoms to alert them.

The earlier the interventions, the better the outcome for children with autism. Yet, most children are not diagnosed until they are 3 years old.

The presentation’s setting was unique – a competition among selected charities to be the beneficiary of the first-ever Fun Run for Charity, a new tradition for St. Paul’s School. Students nominated their favorite charities and became their advocates throughout the selection process.

Peter, the second-grader, stretched to reach the microphone and shared his knowledge about autism, learned first-hand from his sister.

“When Madison was 5 years old, I was 3. I could talk, but she could not. Sometimes she would cry for things, like milk, when she wanted it.

“When she would get frustrated, she could not use words, so sometimes she would hit. Imagine wanting something so badly but not being able to say it. Sometimes she would hit me on the head.”

Forty charities were nominated. Fifteen semi-finalists were chosen to present to the selection committee. Three finalists then presented to the lower, middle and upper schools.

“One day, my mom got a flyer from school,” Peter continued. “It invited us to learn about a special therapy that helped Mason learn. We did not know Mason or his family, but we wanted to learn about this therapy.

“So we went to Mason’s house. My mom decided to try this therapy with my sister. It used drills to teach words. Madison understood these drills. She started to talk.

“Now when she wants milk, she says, ‘I want milk, please.’ She doesn’t hit as much now that she can talk.”

In the audience, four board members of Pathfinders for Autism watched in amazement as our children spoke on behalf of their siblings, and their parents’ dreams.

“Even though my mom talked to many doctors and teachers,” my son continued, “she learned about this therapy from a flyer. We were so lucky to get that flyer from Mason’s family. Without it, my sister may not have learned to talk.”

Austin returned to the microphone and shared what it was like to have a younger brother with autism. He, too, watched his brother struggle to communicate and his parents search for answers.

“Our parents wanted their discoveries to benefit others, so they formed Pathfinders for Autism, an organization created to help parents find information about autism. The money from this Fun Run would go to creating an Autism Resource Center. Its goal is to guide parents down a path of options for their autistic child,” he concluded.

After the presentations, the entire student body voted by secret ballot. Although our charity did not win, we succeeded as did St. Paul’s. Eight hundred children learned about autism, and about what it is like to have a sibling with a disability.

Becky Galli serves on the board of Pathfinders for Autism. The group’s Web site is April is National Autism Awareness month. For more information contact Other resources can be found at,, and