robertisenberg

Walk Now for Autism

In Pittsburgh on June 14, 2009 at 12:00 am

Autism Walk 026

Before we drive to the North Side, where Walk Now For Autism 2009 will take place, my friend J., a doctoral candidate specializing in autism, asks about the event.

“So what do we do there?” she asks.

“Basically it’s a big festival. Free food. Free soda.”

“And where does the ‘Walk’ go?”

“Well, it’s starts at Heinz Field…”

“Okay.”

“And then it goes in a big circle.”

“So we just walk in a circle?”

“Yeah. Three times.”

“Why three times?”

“I don’t know. It’s weird, because I went to the one last year and I thought it was like a race. But it’s not a race. I also thought it might be a protest, but we’re not really protesting anything. Or maybe a pep rally, but it’s not like any pep rally I’ve ever seen. It really is just a long walk. In a circle. Three times.”

“Huh. So why are there teams?”

She’s referring to the teams named after an inspirational child with autism, such as Jonathan’s Journey, Lesare’s Crew, Johnny’s Angels, Marchers for Matty, Team Tyler, Adam’s Apples, Brady’s Bunch, Conner’s Crew, Hilliard’s Heros [sic], Marlee’s March, Gus’ Gang, Austin’s Army, Shelly’s Pirates, and Doin’ It For Dominic, to name a few.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Just an excuse to wear cool T-shirts, I suppose.”

Saturday’s forecast speaks of clouds and roving thunderstorms, but the morning is sunny and warm. Several thousand people show up, and everybody’s smiling. Most of the children murmur strange facts and won’t make eye-contact, but their parents look proud and happy. Here, every parent knows what a “stim” is; they can all appreciate the literalness and inflexibility of their children’s minds. Everyone here has faced a difficult diagnosis, and not one of them has given up.

The Walk proceeds around 10 a.m., and the dense crowd of fund-raisers marches around the block, skirting the stadiums and the river, arriving back at Heinz Field and beginning all over again. By the second lap, half the walkers have dropped out; they’re lulled to the tents by hamburgers and music. Virtually no one sticks around for the final lap.

But most people here are familiar with theories of motivation, since most of these people have dealt with TTS’s and behavioral specialists: If a behavior isn’t positively reinforced — that is, if there’s no reason to keep going — people will stop. And there’s no reason to walk the circle three times.

So at the end of the second lap, I find a bagel and drink some Coke Zero. I see mascots dressed as storm troopers and The Joker and Captain Jack Sparrow. Race, protest, or pep-rally, it doesn’t matter; nobody with autism would understand such gatherings anyway. Instead, it’s just a sunny morning; hotdogs are grilling; everybody here has a common goal. And by day’s end, nearly $500,000 have been raised and filed for Autism Speaks. Rarely has altruism felt so painless.

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