A day to draw attention to autism

By Katherine Wartell

The second annual Autism Meet Optimism walk in City Park from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday will feature carnival games, local vendors, horse-carriage rides and a 5k family fun walk around the park.

The event is geared toward understanding children on what is referred to as “the autism spectrum,” a term designed to encompass autism as well as related conditions. It was organized by Brandy Porter, who with her husband, William Porter, founded the non-profit organization Autism Meet Optimism. They acted in honor of their eight-year-old son Will, who is autistic, and Jill Tinkel, a teacher who has worked with Will for the past four years.

At Sunday’s event, families and children can have their faces painted, play in a bounce house provided by Little Apple Amusement, and see a pony provided by Hope Ranch Therapeutic Riding Center, among many other activities.

Participants can register for the 5k walk on the day of the event and are encouraged to purchase a t-shirt for the walk.

Proceeds will go toward benefiting autistic children. Porter said the charity has been able to provide three scholarships to the Flint Hills Summer Fun Camp.

The title sponsor of the event is Mathis Rehab Center, though several local businesses provided sponsorship as well.

Porter said that she wants to raise awareness because the number of children being diagnosed is so prevalent. She says that if more people understood autism, children on the spectrum would be able to benefit from increased tolerance.

“Anymore, you’re not going to know someone who doesn’t have a kid on the spectrum,” she said.

It is important to Porter that people understand that children such as her son Will are not trying to be rude or disrespectful when they make what could be perceived as a blunt comment. She believes more knowledge of the disorder will encourage empathy.

According to a recent assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. It is almost five times more common in boys, with one in 54 diagnosed, as compared to one in 252 girls.

But Tinkel, who is working on her Master’s degree in applied behavioral science, said it is important to distinguish the differences between children on the spectrum. “If you see one child with autism, you’re only seeing one child with autism,” she said, adding that she hopes the event can help autism be perceived as less of a disability.

Porter’s son was diagnosed as autistic when he was almost two years old. She said he showed signs of regressive autism when he stopped showing interest in activities he used to enjoy, such as playing ball, and stopped responding to his name.

Regressive autism is typically defined as occurring when a child appears to develop typically but then shows signs of autistic behavior such as a loss of speech skills.

Before her son’s diagnosis, Porter knew nothing about autism. She said she found it difficult to find resources in Manhattan, so for a couple of years, Porter would travel to Kansas City each week so that Will could attend a private school and work with a behaviorist. He now attends Amanda Arnold Elementary School, where Tinkel works with him three days a week to implement his behaviorist’s plans.

When Porter returned permanently to Manhattan, she said she became a local contact for many parents in her same position. The need for resources inspired her to start Autism Meet Optimism, which has the motto, “Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.”

Porter and Tinkel said their long-term goal is to open a therapy center in Manhattan. Porter said she wants children to be able to have one-on-one sessions with behaviorists, of which there are none permanently in Manhattan, and receive vocational training.

“Kids [on the autism spectrum] can go on to lead independent lives,” Porter said.

She hopes business owners take note at Sunday’s event and want to get involved by giving on the spectrum teenagers a chance at employment.

She said Manhattan has a great autism support group through the school district, but that there are so many opportunities, particularly with Kansas State University in town, to provide resources that are presently missing in Manhattan to autistic children.

Porter said she would love for Manhattan to be a place where they can hold conferences on autism.

But, she said, autism does not only affect the child diagnosed with it. That’s why Sunday’s Autism Meet Optimism walk also honors the family members of autistic children.

The Porters’ also have two daughters, Chloe, 6 and Callie, 2, who, Porter said, are amazing with their brother.

She said Chloe has had more responsibility placed on her shoulders than most 6-year-olds and will help facilitate when Will is approached by other people, while Callie will push him to the limit and can get him to do almost anything.

“Will’s a hardworking kid. He loves to please,” she said.

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