After Holly Thornhill’s son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at 18 months old, her mother was at a loss.
When Thornhill’s son Hunter was diagnosed, he had minimal speech and simply couldn’t handle any kind of change to his daily routine.
Then one day Thornhill found her mother, Pat Galland, sitting at her kitchen table one day.
Galland looked up and said, “Why did God do this to us?”
Thornhill told her mother Hunter’s diagnosis was not curse, but a blessing.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Thornhill said. “His brain just works a different way.”
That conversation inspired Galland to work to help her grandson and all children who live with Autism Spectrum disorder.
She then funneled her tireless energy into organizing a statewide fundraiser.
“She found out there was a walk in every state except Tennessee,” Thornhill said. Then Galland set to work after that calling everyone and every organization she could think of.
“She's very driven,” Thornhill said. And that persistence paid off when Autism Speaks sent a representative to Tennessee to organize the first Tennessee Walk Now for Autism Speaks five years ago.
“As a grandparent she has power,” Thornhill said. “She was amazing.”
Autism Speaks holds “Walk Now for Autism Speaks” events across the country to fund research and advocacy.
The 5th annual Tennessee Walk Now for Autism Speaks will take place Saturday, Sept. 8 at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville. Registration opens at 8:30 a.m. and the walk begins at 10 a.m.
All event proceeds will support Autism Speaks’ work, both locally and nationally, to increase awareness about the growing autism health crisis, fund innovative autism research and family services, and advocate for the needs of individuals with autism and their families in Nashville and beyond.
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors.
Autism spectrum disorder is now diagnosed in one in every 88 children, including on in 54 boys, making it the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.
Thornhill also does her part to raise funds for Autism Speaks. She organizes the annual benefit “Kicking it for a Cause,” where local bands play and a silent auction is held. This year Thornhill raised more than $6,000 for Autism Speaks.
“It’s my passion ...” she said “I do anything I can do to raise money. I want to help those who have a hard time functioning, not like Hunter, but the others who need help.”
After eight years of intensive aggressive therapy, Hunter, 10, looks and acts like any normal sixth-grade boy, she said.
“Looking at him you wouldn't know. He’s brilliant kid and very special child,” Thornhill explained, adding he swims in the Special Olympics and loves Taekwondo.
Thornhill’s family isn’t the only one in town that chose to give back after being affected by autism.
Jennifer Kates became involved six years ago “since the very first interest meeting,” she said, adding her son, Harper, was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old.
“Now he is nearly 12 and doing quite well thanks to aggressive early intervention and a lot of luck,” she said. “I know that most families in Tennessee's autism community are not as lucky, so it is important to me to support the mission of Autism Speaks, which funds research, advocacy, awareness, and family service initiatives that we just didn't have back when Harper was diagnosed.”
Kates has volunteered for just about every opportunity under the sun.
In 2009 and 2010, she was chairwoman for Walk Now for Autism Speaks. She served as chairwoman for Nashville's Inaugural Light it up Blue Gala in April and volunteered to do it again next year.
“Currently, I serve as the Autism Speaks Community Outreach Chair in Tennessee,” Kates said. “I speak to groups and do public interviews about autism and Autism Speaks.”
She has even put her “signature red hair” on the line to raise money for the cause.
“When we reach the $250,000 fundraising mark in Tennessee, I will dye my signature red hair bright blue!” the MTSU professor said. “I thought this would be a fun way to incentive fundraising for Autism Speaks.”
As of Friday, 2012’s Walk Now for Autism Speaks has raised nearly $100,000 for the nonprofit.
Kates’ family team, Harper’s Heroes, and Thornhill’s team, Hurricane Hunter, are still taking donations. To donate go to walknowforautismspeaks.org/tennessee, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-238-1625.
“We have set a goal to reach 5,000 (Facebook) friends and raise $5,000 for Harper's Heroes. I have been pretty amazed at the response I've gotten through social media as each of my friends invites all of their friends. I’ve been able to reach so many people,” Kates said.
Reaching as many people as possible is the whole point, Thornhill said.
“Educating the public is the most important thing,” she said.
Second to that is connecting with others who have been affected by autism.
“I want people to know we're here for you and to be proud of you are,” she said.