Walkers help raise autism awareness

Walking with blue balloons in teams with names such as Tye’s Caped Crusaders and Adam’s Army, families touched by autism came together at Peoples Natural Gas Field on Saturday for the Central PA Walk Now for Autism Speaks.

“You fit in here,” said Dawn Hummel of Morrisdale. Now in its ninth year, the gathering of families and the myriad of community agencies who offer services and support for those dealing with autism spectrum disorder.

Hummel, whose 16-year-old son Jeremy was diagnosed with a severe form of autism 14 years ago, said the yearly gathering helps raise awareness about the disorder and allows families a chance to network, as well as raise money that goes into such things as research.

Hummel said their team, Hopes and Dreams for Jeremy, raises money throughout the year, centering efforts around the family’s pastime, racing (her husband, Dan Hummel Jr., and their 19-year-old son both race at Clearfield tracks).

Hummel’s 4-year-old, Zachary, who was also diagnosed at 22-months-old, is at the other end of the autism spectrum and has made great strides in overcoming the disorder thanks to early intervention. Through Autism Speaks, Zachary was able to take part in a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia study of autism, one that is helping the family while also helping researchers get a better understanding of the disorer.

“It’s overwhelming at times,” Hummel said, of raising a severely autistic child, and now that Jeremy is a teenager, she’s concerned about how he will make out as an adult.

Brett Spitale, executive director of Greater PA Autism Speaks, said the organization was expecting between 300 and 400 people Saturday, and said while there is still a stigma and stereotypes associated with autism, the event has been a great way to raise awareness about the condition and bring families together to learn more about what resources are available to help them.

“It’s really a grassroots fundraising effort,” Spitale said, adding that families work throughout the year to raise money for the yearly walk that nationally is sponsored by Toys R Us and Babies R Us with local support from the Altoona Curve, Atlantic Broadband, The DeGol Organization, Family Behavioral Services, AERI, New Story, Norfolk Southern, Panera Bread, S&T Bank and NHS Human Services.

Jen Hertzog, 39, of Altoona, who co-chaired the event with Renee Rimbeck, said autism awareness is getting better, and Saturday’s walk is a way to reach people.

“I think now the families are more aware of what the agencies can provide,” Herztog said, referring to support providers such as Cen Clear Child Services AERI and Family Behavorial Resources.

“I think the schools are getting better at recognizing it. Doctors are better at diagnosing it,” Rimbeck, 43, also of Altoona added.