This article was reprinted from the August 13, 2009 issue of The Inquirer and Mirror with permission from the newspaper.
Whaler captains rally to benefit Autism Speaks
By Joshua Balling
I&M Assistant Editor
Caroline Stanton believes in fate. The Nantucket High School rising senior was studying child
development her freshman year when she decided to write a research paper on autism.
“I don't know why. I'd seen those little puzzle pieces around, and I saw information on my mom's desk about a walk for autism on the island, so I started doing research,” she said.
It was then she noticed her 2-year-old niece was exhibiting a lot of the behaviors she'd been reading about. She was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum later that year. All of a sudden, what started as a simple research paper became a lot more personal.
“This is definitely something that's affected my family. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to help out,” said Stanton, 17.
She did so that first year by organizing some of her field-hockey teammates to participate in the inaugural Nantucket Walk Now for Autism. The following year, the cheerleading squad joined in, and this year, Stanton – a captain on the field hockey and lacrosse teams – decided to see if she could get athletes from all the fall sports teams involved.
She created the Whaler Sports Challenge by calling on her fellow captains to see how much money they could raise, and how many walkers they could bring to Jetties Beach for this year's event, scheduled for Aug. 22. The team that raises the most money will be recognized with a plaque in the high school.
“I really wanted to do something to get everyone involved. I knew kids wouldn't be jumping out of their seats to do an autism walk, so I thought if I made it a challenge, a competition, it might be more interesting,” she said. She called on the captains, who at this time of year are holding informal practices in preparation for the fall season, to generate interest among their teammates.
“They've been doing really well. Everyone's putting in the effort and wants to help out. Everyone means well. I think walk day is going to see a big turnout from Nantucket High School.”
For Stanton, like many involved with the cause, it's not just about the money.
“Getting walkers is really important, too. Even if a team isn't able to raise that much, even if you can't donate that much, just come out to the walk. You can always come at the last minute. I'm really excited. Walk day will be great if all the teams come out, and we have a substantial number of people. It will show that Nantucket youth are helping out. I think the kids on-island who have autism, it means a lot to them and their parents to see that. Everyone knows autism, everyone's seen it.”
Autism is a neuro-biological developmental disorder characterized by impaired communication, severe deficits in social interaction and emotional detachment, affecting 1 in 150 children. The manifestations of autism cover a wide spectrum, ranging from people with severe impairments who may be silent, mentally disabled or locked into hand-flapping and rocking behaviors; to high-functioning individuals who may have active but distinctly odd social tendencies or narrowly-focused interests.
Autism Speaks was founded in 2005 by former NBC Universal CEO Bob Wright and his wife Suzanne, Nantucket summer residents.
Since starting Autism Speaks, the Wrights have been tireless advocates for autism research and awareness, lobbying for the passage of the Combating Autism Act, which President Bush signed into law in 2006, and which appropriated $1 billion for autism research over five years. The organization has also merged with the National Alliance for Autism Research to fund biomedical research to combat the disorder.
Stanton recognizes she's doing something important.
“Autism is on the rise. It's nothing that's really going to go away any time soon. More and more people are being diagnosed with it. You can't avoid it. I've talked to Mrs. Wright and a lot of people in the autism organization, and people are saying this is going to be put on the shoulders of our generation,” she said. “Getting youth involved is really important. One day one of us may have an autistic child. Autism is something that's not always clear at first. It's really important to diagnose it early on. The more people who know about it, and know what to look for, the better.”
Emma Knutti, a captain on the cheerleading squad, was happy to help.
“My cousin has Down syndrome, and was diagnosed with autism, so this hits close to home for me,” said Knutti, who will be walking for her third time Aug. 22. “I've just been telling the girls to get out there for this really worthy cause. It really does make a difference. Don't underestimate us.”
Golf captain Taylor Thayer echoed her thoughts.
“Autism is one of those diseases that is real common but not that many people know a lot about. If I can get the message to my team about the need to raise money for research, and let more people know about it, then I'm happy to do it,” said Thayer, who walked with his family last year.
Kim Horyn, director of the Nantucket Autism Speaks Research Center, praised the efforts of Stanton and the other NHS students.
“It's so gratifying to see our high-school students taking such an active role in a cause like this. These students are wonderful role models, not only for our children on the spectrum, but for all our children,” she said.
High school principal John Buckey agreed, and said similar initiatives by other students at NHS show the compassion and commitment of the student body.
“One of the best things about Nantucket High School is that our school is full of students who give selflessly of their time and talents to help others. From our Breakfast Buddies program where seniors begin their day informally mentoring elementary-school students, to our exhibitions program where students may elect to research and support a cause of importance to them – Jennifer Chadwick and her wonderful work raising awareness and funding for Parkinson's disease – Nantucket High School is blessed to have such a benevolent student body. The Whaler Sports Challenge is another wonderful example of how our students give back to the community and make a difference. Seeing our student athletes demonstrate leadership by helping in the community is a real trifecta: academics, athletics and community service. What more could a principal ask for?”
To support a team in the Whaler Sports Challenge or any other in the Aug. 22 Nantucket Walk Now for Autism, log on to www.walknowforautism.org/nantucket.