Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Walk Now

To better understand somebody, don’t just walk a mile in their shoes… walk three miles by their side.

This was the conclusion I drew last year after participating in my first Walk Now for Autism Speaks event in Chicago. The event moved me so greatly and the people touched me so deeply that it literally changed my life forever.

Autism was no longer a deserted island. There were people out there that lived it and breathed it every day just like I did. There were families that looked just like mine walking the path down Chicago’s beautiful lakefront. Their struggles were our struggles. Autism was not the isolating sentence I thought my family had received, it was quite the opposite.

I watched in marvel as groups of people walked by in team t-shirts, carrying signs and supporting their loved ones with the simplest of ideas… a walk. We had team shirts and signs as well, but for some reason it took me witnessing others showing solidarity for it to really sink in. It wasn’t that I wasn’t appreciative or thankful for my group, it was simply that I know how great MY friends and family are, so I expected nothing less from them.

Seeing people on the spectrum of all ages was also new to me. We knew a few other kids on the spectrum, but at the time were not familiar with any teens or adults with autism. For a few years after Bianca’s diagnosis, I was not emotionally ready to be around groups of kids with autism or varying challenges. I remember one of Bianca’s first therapists who is now a family friend encouraging me one day to attend a group picnic in which all of the families of those that were receiving therapy could come together. I told her there was no way I could handle it emotionally. I made light of it and joked it off, but as soon as she left our house, I shut the door behind her and wept uncontrollably.

At the walk I fought back tears often. Just thinking about the 28 people on our walk team for the first year and how they all came together last minute allowed me to gain perspective on how many people were in Bianca’s corner. In about six weeks we had raised around $3500 and I felt good that I was able to give back to an organization that provided me with a wealth of information.

This year we had 40 walkers and raised close to $11,000. It was a humbling show of support. The weather was horrible! It was cold and damp but the spirit of those participating could not be dampened even if we would have been hit with Old Testament style rain. People were greeting one another and introducing their kids without shame or fear of judgment. I was stopped a few times to ask to pose for pictures with people that recognized me from my “Fixing”Autism video. Amongst our team were a group of people from where my wife and I used to work together and first met… we have been gone 11 years, yet they were there for us. We had an old high school friend of mine whom I probably haven’t seen since I graduated show up with her family, and a bunch of our immediate family and close friends participated as well.

It was an amazing group.

We had a great time on the walk itself as we stopped along Lake Shore Drive holding up a sign that said, “Honk if you love somebody with autism”. Each honk was met with wild cheering and applause from our team and others. The walk even proved as an educational experience as some of Bianca’s young cousins already aware of, and accepting of, Bianca being different asked about autism.

As was the case last year, we were one of the last teams to cross the finish line. We just have too much fun stopping for pictures, being proud, acting goofy and enjoying one another’s company.

If you have not participated in a Walk Now for Autism Speaks event, I strongly encourage it. There is no registration fee and you don’t even need to fundraise if you don’t want to. Just go. Be with others that are sharing a similar experience and expand your circle of friends.

There isn’t just strength in numbers… there is a lot of love too.

For more information on Walk Now for Autism Speaks events, and to find the nearest one in your area, please visit http://www.walknowforautismspeaks.org

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