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Walk Now for Autism Speaks draws Ohio State alumni, autism research supporters

Autistic children and their friends, family and supporters will walk this weekend in an attempt to solve the puzzle.

Walk Now for Autism Speaks is set to be held Sunday at Huntington Park to raise money to find a cure for autism.

Bob and Suzanne Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism, founded Autism Speaks in 2005. The organization focuses on autism science and advocacy, helping fund research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism, according to its website. There are college chapters of the organization nationwide.

Autism is a term describing a group of disorders of brain development, typically characterized by difficulty with social interact, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to the Autism Speaks website.

Last year’s Columbus walk welcomed nearly 20,000 people and raised more than $1 million, said NBC4 Sports Director Jerod Smalley.

Smalley serves as the co-chair for Walk Now For Autism Speaks Columbus and is the father of two boys diagnosed with autism.

Smalley’s sons Brady, age 8, and Tyler, age 5, were each diagnosed with autism when they were almost 2 years old. Brady had no language skills and could not make eye contact or play with toys, Smalley said.

“He’d get into repetitive behaviors where he’d build blocks or a puzzle just so he could tear it apart and do it again,” Smalley said.

After Brady’s diagnosis, Smalley pitched a story to NBC4 that later became a multiple Emmy award winning series, “The Autism Puzzle.”

The idea for the show centers around the metaphor that autism is a puzzle with pieces that need to be put together, Smalley said. The show discusses how autism is more prevalent now than ever and searches for a therapy or treatment that could help children overcome their delays.

“That’s how we started and the results were amazing,” Smalley said. “We had phone calls and emails from autism parents who were desperate for the information. We discovered an entire community which needed help, and I was a new part of that community.”

Both Brady and Tyler attend a school for children with autism but plan to transition into typical classrooms, Smalley said.

Leah Mong, co-president of the Ohio State chapter of Autism Speaks U and a fourth-year in speech and hearing, said in an email her group aims to engage the campus community through education, awareness and fundraising, in an effort to positively affect the lives of those with autism spectrum disorders.

Autism Speaks U will be selling T-shirts, buckeye necklaces and other assorted goods at Sunday’s walk to raise money for Autism Speaks. The group’s goal is to raise $5,000, Mong said.

One Autism Speaks walker, Maureen Sullivan, a Worthington resident, has been surrounded by the disorder for almost 30 years.

Sullivan is the mother of 29-year-old twin boys, Alex Sawyers and Sean Sawyers, who were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and autism, respectively.

Sullivan is an OSU alumna who said her only experience with autism prior to her children’s diagnoses was Bruno Bettelheim’s theory that the disorder resulted from emotional disconnects between relationships of mothers and children in which the mother was unloving.

When her sons were in preschool, Sullivan’s college roommate referred her to the OSU Nisonger Center, which focuses on developmental disabilities, where both sons underwent an assessment determining each to have a different degree of the disability.

The boys were suspected of having hyperlexia, a disorder often shown by advanced reading and memory abilities with delays in comprehension. It wasn’t until Sullivan took her sons to participate in a hyperlexia study at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland that Sean Sawyers was officially diagnosed as autistic, Sullivan said.

Alex Sawyers’ condition was less severe and doctors originally diagnosed him with having a pervasive developmental disorder, not yet otherwise specified.

Alex Sawyers went to Worthington schools from kindergarten through his senior year of high school with an individualized education program. Sean Sawyers went to West Central, a community correctional facility, and joined his brother at Worthington in fourth grade, Sullivan said.

It was in 2004 at OSU that Alex Sawyers was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. Alex Sawyers graduated from OSU in 2006 with a Bachelors of Arts in international studies.

Following his diagnosis, Alex Sawyers was recommended to Aspirations Ohio, a group at OSU focused on helping people with Asperger’s to develop social skills, Sawyers said.

In 1998, Sullivan said she decided to dedicate her life to autism research when she was hired at Sutter Park Preschool in Worthington to work in a multi-handicapped classroom.

Sullivan said she has attending the Walk Now for Autism Speaks walk in Columbus with her sons for the past six years.

“This is our passion every year,” Sullivan said. “Your son can have a meltdown and it’s the one day where everyone around understands.”

Alex Sawyers first joined up with Autism Speaks in 2008. He said he had trouble developing a social life until he joined Facebook.

Facebook allowed Alex Sawyers to connect with people online who led different lifestyles, allowing him to develop the confidence to build successful face-to-face relationships, Alex Sawyers said.

“Facebook was essential for me in having the social life I do today,” Alex Sawyers said. “When talking to my friends, I tell them there is no way I could see myself doing this five years ago.”

Registration for the Columbus walk is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m., with the walk starting at 11 a.m. Smalley, Sullivan and the Sawyers brothers said they plan on attending.

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