by Jim Boyle
Brett Henkemeyer was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when he was 11 years old.
He’s now 16 and not the least bit ashamed to admit he suffers from Asperger syndrome.
So when the opportunity arose to help put on the first walk for autism in Elk River, the Otsego youth leapt at the chance.
He and dozens of other students at Spectrum High School in Elk River are organizing the first-time event they have dubbed the Way2Go Walk for Autism.
It’s slated for Saturday, April 9 at Lions Park. The community is invited to the event that is raising funds for the Autism Society of Minnesota.
The Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) is an organization of families, educators, care givers and professionals committed to supporting individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It was established in 1971.
AuSM has members throughout Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.
It puts on a walk of its own called Steps of Hope.
The main purpose of Spectrum’s walk will be to raise awareness about the disorder that now affects 1 in 110 children, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Autism is a complex developmental disability that is present from birth or very early in development.
It affects essential human behaviors such as social interaction, the ability to communicate ideas and feelings, imagination, self-regulation, and the ability to establish relationships with others.
Although precise neurobiological mechanisms have not yet been established, it is clear that this disability reflects the operation of factors in the developing brain, according to information on the AuSM’s Web site.
Autism is four to five times more prevalent in boys than in girls and knows no racial, ethnic or social boundaries.
Family income, lifestyle and educational levels do not affect the chance of a child having autism.
Autism is currently thought of as a “spectrum disorder.” This means that the severity of symptoms differs in people with ASD.
But there are enough similarities from one person with ASD to the next that Henkemeyer says there’s a lot that can be learned from people with the disorder for the benefit of all.
As far as he’s concerned, the effort to bring the Autism Walk to Elk River has already been a success.
“I have seen people change their attitudes and what they think about people with autism already,” he said.
The walk will be about one mile in length, according to Kellie Blanchard, one of two special education teachers at Spectrum who are assisting the student-driven project.
Blanchard and Karin Ness, another special education teacher, easily got behind the idea for the walk. They have provided both passion and advice to the students who have been putting the event together.
“They have done a wonderful job,” Blanchard said.
The plan for the day of the event is to have booths set up with information on autism and on the school’s upcoming Active Youth Day.
People will be able to register for the walk on the day of the event, but the deadline to register and get a Way2Go Autism Walk T-shirt is Monday, March 28.
Saige Vacek, 17, a junior from Rogers, is also part of the group planning the first-time event. Her first thought about getting involved in this particular service learning project was that it would look good on a résumé to have started this from scratch.
The work, however, has taken on greater meaning since learning she has a relative who might be on the spectrum.
“I hope it becomes an annual event,” she said.
So does Mikayla Morland, who has grown up with her mother helping people with disabilities. The 14-year-old Otsego youth knows people with the disorder, and has seen some of the challenges that can come their way.
She’s also been able to interact with them, and knows how sweet they can be despite their disability.
“I want people to know what it can be like to be them and how to interact with them,” Morland said.
So does Henkemeyer, who lists among his skills the ability to solve complex and puzzling math problems.
Maybe he and his peers at Spectrum are onto solving something even bigger.
Way2Go Autism Walk
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9. Registration at 1 p.m.
Where: Lions Park.
Who: Spectrum High School-sponsored event open to all to raise money for Autism Society of Minnesota and awareness about autism spectrum disorders.
Note: Registration deadline to sign up and receive event T-shirt is March 28.