Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Shopping discounts to benefit fight against autism

Mothers of autistic children solicited businesses’ help in raising money

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Potomac resident Marjory Robinson first suspected something might be wrong with her son Michael, now 6, when he was about 18 months old. The child had trouble pointing to objects and didn’t always respond when called by name.

Robinson said she became alarmed after she researched his symptoms online. She wanted to rule out a hearing problem to account for his strange behavior, so she had him examined.

‘‘When the [ear, nose and throat specialist] told me his hearing was fine, I sat there bawling, because I knew what the alternative meant,” Robinson said.

The boy was diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder that affects communication and social skills, when he was 3 and a half years old. Robinson said she had suspicions much earlier, but her doctors wanted to ‘‘wait and see.”

Now, Robinson is trying to raise awareness about the disorder in the community and drive home the importance of early diagnosis. Robinson and Potomac autism activist Susan Pereles have been enlisted by Autism Speaks, a national autism awareness organization, to call on the Montgomery County business community to raise money and awareness surrounding the disorder during the month of April — Autism Awareness Month.

The women, along with several volunteers, have organized a program called ‘‘Eat, Shop, Give,” in which more than 140 county businesses will offer a 20 percent discount during the week of April 21–27 to those who purchase a key tag. The proceeds of the $50 key tag will benefit Autism Speaks.

‘‘We’re thrilled at how many businesses immediately said yes,” Robinson said.

Both women have been involved with autism awareness for several years. Pereles is known in the community for organizing the popular July 4 autism walk in Potomac, which will benefit Autism Speaks this summer.

In past years, the walk has benefited Cure Autism Now, which merged with Autism Speaks in 2007.

The Eat, Shop, Give campaign is unique to Montgomery County, though it’s one of several national efforts organized by Autism Speaks this month to raise funds by partnering with businesses, including Toys ‘R’ Us and Barnes and Noble.

‘‘We have a very substantial clientele of special needs families, and it’s a way to give back,” said Ed Jurgrau, owner of the Shoe Train shoe store in Potomac, who is participating in the campaign. ‘‘We’re very passionate about serving that community.”

The owners of Stretchalicious, a new Rockville athletic sportswear company for women, decided to coincide its grand opening celebration with Autism Awareness Month. The company will donate 10 percent of its sales on its opening day, April 11, to the group.

‘‘We thought it would be a great thing to have our grand opening tie in with Autism Speaks,” said Jessica Lilienfield, an owner of the store. The company will also hold a silent auction to benefit the organization, and markets an autism awareness pant, which benefits autism research.

Robinson said she hopes that through the campaign she can bring more attention to the prevalence of autism. About one in 150 people have been diagnosed with autism, according to Autism Speaks. ‘‘We’d like to see more families supporting differences in people and children,” Robinson said.

She also hopes to encourage parents to watch for symptoms of autism — such as a child failing to make eye contact and having difficulty with social interaction and communication – early on, and to seek support if they suspect their child might have the disorder.

‘‘I encourage every family to take a ‘just in case’ attitude,” Robinson said.