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Autism: Breaking the silence in Detroit Lakes

Walks for autism happen all over the U.S., Canada and the U.K. through "Autism Speaks". Now, Detroit Lakes will join the fight with a similar walk, set for Saturday, June 25.1 / 2
Rob COX, special education teacher at Rossman, took the initiative to begin a grass-roots effort to bring more autism awareness and education to the Detroit Lakes Area, beginning with the first ever "Detroit Lakes Walk Now for Autism.2 / 2

Autism and its puzzling explosion has been baffling the best and the brightest doctors for years.

Luckily, they've got the young and ambitious on their side.

Rob Cox, 27, is rallying locals for the city's first ever "Detroit Lakes Walk Now for Autism."

The special ed teacher worked with autistic children in a West Des Moines elementary school, but when he moved to Detroit Lakes to do the same thing at Rossman Elementary two years ago, he was a little surprised.

"I had 24 kids on my caseload, but the public awareness wasn't where I thought it'd be," said Cox.

So, he's changing that.

The Hawley native who believes autistic children are fun and unique, gathered up his friends and family to form a committee to put together the inaugural walk, scheduled for Saturday June 25, at City Park.

One of those organizers is Detroit Lakes mom Sherri Johnson, whose 11-year-old son, Connor has autism.

"When he was a baby, he was hitting all his milestones, but then around 16 months, he stopped talking and started making high pitched squeals," said Johnson, who had at one time worked with autistic children as a special education teacher.

Since then, Johnson has not only worked with area teachers and extra curricular program coordinators to help them understand Connor, but finds getting the general public to understand autism has been more difficult.

"Especially when he was younger, people wondered why I couldn't just discipline him, but it wasn't that simple."

Cox says Johnson's experience with misinformed people is common.

"The biggest misconceptions that I've heard -- and I've heard it here in DL -- is that they're just little bratty kids or it's bad parenting, and that's sad to hear; it's as far from the truth as you can get."

The truth is, while the severity of autism varies greatly, those children always experience social struggles.

"They're very bright," Cox said, "they just don't really understand the social setting they're in, and will oftentimes have sensory issues as far as sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing .... they're really hyper-sensitive."

Johnson says Connor is high functioning and wants to make friends, but ends up spending a lot of time alone.

"The hardest thing for him is realizing he's different in some ways, but doesn't really know how to make the adjustment to fix it," said Johnson, "We always want him to fit in, but if he's having a fit or flapping his hands, people don't understand that it's soothing to him; they will just look at him funny."

Statistics show that over the past 15 years, the number of children in the U.S. diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 110 now (and 1 in 70 boys).

"Part of that is the fact that lots of these kids were misdiagnosed as bipolar or schizophrenic before we knew much about autism, but it's still obviously rising dramatically, and although doctors are always coming up with new ways to treat it, our hope is that they find a cure."

That's how Cox and his friends believe they can help.

The group is busy getting raffle donations together, while sending out fundraising envelopes to residents willing to walk in the event.

Money raised will go to "Autism Speaks," a worldwide organization dedicated to tackling the disorder.

So far, Cox says they have 10 teams signed up, with four to six people on a team, but they are shooting for at least 300 people.

There will be games and a jump house for kids, as well as music and nationally known autism speaker Barb Stanton.

Registration goes from noon to 1 p.m., with the two-mile walk beginning at 1:15 p.m..

"We'll have a resource fair of different organizations in our community that can help out parents as well to find different care," said Cox, "including respite care, in-home care, life coaches, occupational therapy and more."

Johnson says she believes awareness of autism and support from the public could help more people in the community than it might seem.

"Since getting involved with this, I've met so many people who either have autistic children right here in our area, or know of somebody who does -- I had no idea."

For more information on the event or to donate to the raffle, call Cox at 701-261-9605, log on to www.givenow.autismspeaks/detroitlakeswalk or search for them on Facebook at Detroit Lakes Walk Now for Autism.