Islanders raise awareness of autism, seek additional funding

John Rossi stands under blue lights on his front porch. His home on the corner of High School Road and Sportsman Club Road will be lit up during April for autism awareness. - Richard D. Oxley / Bainbridge Island Review
John Rossi stands under blue lights on his front porch. His home on the corner of High School Road and Sportsman Club Road will be lit up during April for autism awareness.
— image credit: Richard D. Oxley / Bainbridge Island Review

Blue can describe many things. It can be a mood, it can be an expansive sky.

But this month, blue is the color of autism.

April is Autism Awareness Month. To make the cause more visible, various structures around the world from the Pyramids in Egypt to the Empire State Building in New York have been blanketed in blue light.

Islanders can see their own blue piece of the island on the corner

of Sportsman Club Road and

High School Road, where John Rossi has lit up his home. It will remain blue all through the month.

“Monuments all over the world have been lit up in blue,” Rossi said. “But also people just like me can put a blue light on their porch.”

The community, schools

For Rossi, it is a personal cause. His daughter has been diagnosed with autism. He, like many other parents on the island, finds support in a local autistic community.

Island Autism Moms and Dads began as a small group of parents who shared their experiences raising autistic children.

“(It) started with a couple of moms meeting for dinner to talk about kids with autism,” said Karen Connors, one of the group’s founders. “It grew into a book club, reading books on autism.”

Connors isn’t certain how many students on the island are diagnosed with autism, but her email list reaches at least 30 families.

One of the experiences they shared as parents was dealing with the school district, which they said didn’t seem to be adequately prepared to accommodate autistic students.

Children with autism don’t learn like other children, according to Dr. Chuck Cowan, medical director of the Seattle Children’s Autism Center.

Cowan said that simple communication or other social interactions that babies normally learn through experience have to be specifically taught to an autistic child. Therefore, schools have to take on teaching autistic students differently.

“(Autism) means more intensive work, and more hours, and many school systems aren’t funded enough and don’t have the staff or have the resources to do that,” he said.

Wings is a program that local parents developed to solve the educational problems facing autistic kids. It finds funding and organizes services for autistic students.

Wings pays for a coordinator to work with students and the schools to accommodate autistic students. It also pays to train teachers about the issue and pay for them to meet outside of school hours regarding autistic topics.

Each year it is a scramble to fund the program for the much needed services.

Islanders will have an opportunity to provide funding for school services on April 19 when the Bainbridge Schools Foundation holds its annual breakfast fund-raiser. Half of the money raised will go to support the Wings program.

An iPad3 is also being raffled off at the breakfast. Proceeds from the raffle tickets will go to the Wings program and can be purchased on the foundation’s website.

Rising rates of autism

Raising awareness for autism has become more important since new statistics on autism were recently released by the Centers for Disease Control. The autism rate in the United States has risen to 1 in every 88 children. That number was previously 1 in 110.

In Washington state, Kitsap County has the highest prevalence of autism.

But understanding the numbers can be difficult, Cowan said.

“The real number, if there is such a thing, is very hard to come up with and understand,” Cowan said. “I suspect that if we did a study that counted every single person, the rate would be much higher.”

Cowan notes that Kitsap County has a military installation in Bremerton and that the resources there may make diagnosing autism more successful than in other places.

“The military insurance system has a specific benefit for autism in terms of providing special services, which is more generous than any other insurance plan in the United States,” Cowan said.

But no areas or groups receive support for autism equally. Getting services to autistic children as the rates grow is important to handling the disorder, Cowan said.

However the numbers are read, they don’t put a face on autism. With the issue becoming more prevalent, everyone may know someone impacted by autism, according to Rossi and Connors.

“These kids are more than numbers,” Connors said. “They are people and they have families, and they are out in our communities.”

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