Family’s battle with autism inspires Hi King Klub members to help out

By FAITH HUFFMAN | News-Telegram News Editor

Apr. 11, 2007 - A 2 1/2-year-old inspired a young teen-ager to rally her friends in Hi King Klub to do something to help with funding for autism research. 

Staff Photo by Angela Pitts

Sulphur Springs High School Hi King Klub donated $500 to "Cure Autism Now" to help find a cure for autism. Recently diagnosed with autism, 2-year-old Jessica Stephenson (front, middle) accepts the check on behalf of the organization from her cousin, HKK member Whitney Mitchell (left). Also pictured are Jessica's parents Chad and Miranda, her big sister Jennifer, 6, and HKK member Kayla Morgan (far right).

Sulphur Springs High School student Whitney Mitchell and fellow Hi King Klub member Kayla Morgan this past weekend handed Jessica Mitchell's parents, Chad and Miranda Stephenson of Campbell, a $500 check from the Hi King Klub to benefit Walk Now.

Walk Now is a 5K walk much like the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, only instead of benefiting cancer research, Walk Now funds go toward autism research and programs.

Walk Now combines Cure Autism Now and Autism Speaks' Walk Now and Walk For Autism Research into a single program to be held on May 19 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The event begins with registration at 8:30 a.m. and the walk kicks off at 10 a.m. The event is not timed but allows families of individuals with autism and supporters to walk the 5 kilometers at their own pace.

To register a team, to become part of a team or as an individual, simply go online to the web site: www.walknow.org. Last year, Walk Now raised more than $6 million for autism, and hopes to exceed that accomplishment again with the walks to be held in 21 cities throughout the country.

The Stephensons, who have family in Sulphur Springs and Hopkins County, encourage everyone to attend the walk and donate to find a cause and cure for autism, which affects one in every 150 children and more than 1.5 million Americans.

Autism is a "complex neurobiological disorder of development that lasts throughout a person's lifetime," according to the Cure Autism Now/Walk Now website.

In children, symptoms are sometimes detected in infancy, while others, like Jessica, develop normally for a year or more before exhibiting behaviors such as difficulty communicating and interacting with others.

According to the Stephensons, Jessica was diagnosed in August with autism. She had shown no signs of anything other than normal child development until they noticed their toddler, who had been speaking, was suddenly having difficulty getting out words.

"She was talking, and then one day she just quit," Chad said of Jessica, who will be 3 in June.

That's a classic symptom  — difficulty communicating and interacting with others. Others include retreating into isolation and fixating on a word, object or activity.

After numerous screenings and testings, they were told their youngest daughter was that one child in 150 to suffer from autism.

Jessica's behaviors, repetitive speech or actions, are early signs of autism. Others indicators are loss or lack of speech around 18 months of age, little or no eye contact, loss or lack of gestures such as pointing or waving and unusual sensory reactions.

The good news is that now autism is treatable, although there is still no known cure. At best, a highly functioning person with autism may only seem eccentric or a loner as an adult. The bad news is that a person with more profound autism may never be able to speak or care for themselves.

The Stephenson's uphill journey of trying to understand the disorder and how to best help their daughter has been marked with financial headaches. They quickly learned that autism isn't something that is generally covered by health insurance. Special schools where children and families undergo training in how to best assist the autistic child is expensive — $50,000 at least. There also aren't a lot of community resources targeted at this percentage of the population either, Chad said.

Of course they've also learned to appreciate and celebrate Jessica's "small victories," the small, everyday advancements such as mastering words.

"It's there, and we have to deal with it," her father said. "It's hard for people to understand. Autistic children develop, just in special ways — in their own time. Jessica is a very routine child."

"She's always on the go but don't try to hold her down. She doesn't like to be confined," her mother, Miranda, said.

The Stephensons, in an effort to raise funds for research and awareness for autism, will be participating in Walk Now, and urge all who are able to do so as well.

Although Walk Now isn't until May, Hi King Klub chose to give their donation to the family in April in in hopes of generating interest in the walk but also as a way to generate more awareness for autism during Autism Awareness Month.

In addition to walking, the May 19 event includes a community resource fair which will allows parents of autistic children to meet with a variety of autism service providers, and also offers arts and crafts, moon bounces and a variety of activities for kids.

For more information about local efforts for Walk Now, go to www.walknow.org or call Miranda Stephenson at 903-994-2710.

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