Midtown Raleigh News

Families find acceptance at annual autism fundraiser

For Becky Webb, the annual Triangle Run/Walk for Autism isn’t just another fundraiser. It’s a celebration.

Webb knows that when she shows up in her running shoes on Saturday, the thousands of participants gathered for the race will welcome her family just the way it is – including her son, Ryan, who has autism.

That’s not always the case elsewhere.

“There are a lot of places where you know that if you go, you’re not going to be accepted,” she said.

But at the race, Ryan is free to be himself, a loving 8-year-old who likes to read, swim and, most importantly on that day, run.

“It’s such a day of joy,” Webb said.

The race benefits the Autism Society of North Carolina, which provides support to individuals and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, a group of developmental disabilities that affect communication, social interaction and behavior.

There are more than 60,000 people with ASD in North Carolina, and they each experience autism differently, according to the society.

At last year’s race, more than 3,000 participants raised a record-breaking $310,000, and organizers expect similar numbers this year, for the race’s 15th anniversary.

In addition to 5K races, a 1-mile race and a kids’ dash, Saturday’s event also will feature children’s activities, food and information from businesses, service providers and local resources for families dealing with autism.

David Laxton, the communications director at the society, said that when he started with the group in the mid-1990s, few people knew about autism. If he asked at a community meeting how many people knew someone with autism, only a few hands would go up.

Today, most people know someone who is affected, and nearly everyone is familiar with the term.

Webb said that since Ryan was diagnosed when he was nearly 4 years old, she’s seen an increase in awareness about autism.

“I think we have a long way to go, but I think we’re getting there,” she said.

Webb and her husband, Tom, started participating in the race the same year Ryan was diagnosed because they wanted to give back to the society. The organization was one of the first places where they could learn about what autism would mean for Ryan and their family, find support to navigate their options and find acceptance.

They are part of the “Pediatric Possibilities” team.

Both Webb and Laxton said that one of the best parts of the day of the race is that families can see they’re not alone. At the same time, though, the gathering is a powerful illustration of how each individual with autism is unique.

That’s a message Laxton stresses. As autism awareness grows, he doesn’t want people to fall into the trap of thinking everyone with autism is the same in how they behave or what they need.

“We have to remember that individuals on the autism spectrum are just that – individuals,” he said.