WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – An estimated 15,000 people participated Sunday in the 11th annual Westchester/Fairfield Walk Now for Autism Speaks, one of the nation’s largest autism walks. The event, hosted by New York-Presbyterian Hospital's Westchester Division, took place on the White Plains campus for the second consecutive year.
“We love being part of a positive event,” said Barbara Stern of her family, including 10-year-old son Rafael, who has autism. “We see a lot of people we know and we want to support autism research.”
The Scarsdale resident, also joined by her husband, mother and daughter, said they always try to keep a positive outlook on everything.
“We’re so active with him,” said Stern. “We don’t look at what he can’t do – we look at what he can do and there’s so much.” Rafael swims, does tai-chi and knows how to play basketball and soccer. He is also enrolled in the Eastchester School District.
Stern said she “always knew something was not quite right with her son,” but was not devastated like some parents are when they hear their child has autism.
She said that when she and her husband were given Rafael’s diagnosis, they realized, “It was just like work more, try more, do more and love him more.” Stern added, “I love my son more than anything and I love my daughter.”
Stern walked with participants from groups big and small, and of all ages and backgrounds in a 2-mile loop around the campus to raise awareness and funds for the disorder that Dr. Philip Wilner, coordinator of the event, said it affects one in 88 children. One of the groups was Blind Brook High School’s autism awareness club, which had 17 members walking.
Andy Chasanoff, who recently graduated from Blind Brook, formed the group with three other friends at the end of sophomore year. One of the founders has a twin brother with autism, which prompted the formation of the “big club,” Chasanoff said.
“I love seeing everyone get involved because this is what we’ve really focused on all year was not just about raising money, but getting people aware of what’s going on,” said Chasanoff. “To see a thousand people stacked up for this, it’s really exciting.”
Wilner, vice president and medical director for behavioral health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Westchester Division, shared the same sentiment and said it was “absolutely thrilling” to see 15,000 people walking. He also said that “it’s very possible” that funds from this year’s walk will surpass last year’s total of $1.3 million.
“It gives us hope – it inspires us,” said Wilner. “We have the sense of the commitment that everybody’s shown. We one day will have the knowledge to come up with better approaches.”
He said he is also excited about the partnership between New York Presbyterian and The New York Center for Autism in the creation of a center for autism on the hospital’s White Plains campus. Wilner said the center, set to open in 2013, will be used “to assess children and adolescents with autism, establish treatment plans for them, treat them and make linkages for the community.”