BANGOR, Maine — There was a carnival atmosphere Sunday morning inside the crowded University College of Bangor Fitness Center.
Colorful balloons and beach balls brightened the cavernous gymnasium. Children lined up at craft tables to trace cheerful acrylic designs on white T-shirts and to carefully layer colored sand in clear glass jars. They had rainbows and flowers painted on their cheeks.
Adults and teens, many wearing matching T-shirts, mingled and chatted. Dogs on leashes were everywhere.
Despite the party atmosphere, this crowd was here on a serious mission: to raise money and public awareness for autism.
The seventh annual Walk for Autism in Bangor attracted 680 walkers of all ages and raised about $14,300. Similar events in Portland and Farmington raised another $21,000, bringing the Autism Society of Maine close to its goal of $40,000 for the three locations.
Autism spectrum disorder is a poorly understood developmental disability that affects one of every 110 children born in the United States, according to the Autism Society of America.
In Maine, the rate is higher: One of every 80 children born here will develop symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. The spectrum ranges from mild attention deficits on one end to profound retardation and disability on the other. Social skills and the ability to communicate also may be affected.
The cause of autism is unknown, but most researchers believe it involves a mix of inherited traits and environmental exposures. No cure has been found, but many children with autism improve with intensive behavioral therapy. Medications and dietary changes also can be helpful.
Some families and medical providers believe autism may be triggered by exposure to childhood vaccines, but mainstream researchers and public health officials say there is no link.
The annual Walk for Autism raises money for research and support while also raising public awareness of the disorder. But it does more than that, according to Cathy Dionne of the Autism Society of Maine.
“We tell families, ‘Bring your child [with autism] with you. It’s a great outing, and you’ll meet other families with the same challenges and interests. You are not alone in this,’” she said.
For Yvette Roy of Greenville and her family, the walk in Bangor was an opportunity to interact with other families struggling with the challenges of raising a child with autism. Her son Jordan, now 5, was diagnosed at age 3. Everyday life has changed, she said, as the family tries to deal with issues ranging from Jordan’s special educational needs to his extreme sensory sensitivity.
“We used to drive him from Greenville to [Dover-Foxcroft] four days a week” for special educational services, said Scott Roy, Jordan’s grandfather. “That helped a lot; they opened him right up. Now he’s in a normal kindergarten class … He loves to read.”
Jordan’s sister Miranda, 15, said her friends at home don’t understand the challenges her family is dealing with.
“No one knows anything about it where we live,” she said, looking around at the room full of families all affected by autism.
Tabatha Morin of Hermon was expecting close to 30 friends and family members to come out and walk in honor of her son Austin, who is 9 years old. She said the Autism Society of Maine has been a reliable source of information and support since Austin was diagnosed at age 6.
“They are just great,” she said.
In addition to the activities and distractions at the sign-up, information was available on special school programs, service dogs, support for adoptive families, and dietary changes that are helpful to some children with autism.
All parents have questions about raising their children, said Frank Spinney of Stillwater Academy in Brewer, a special-needs school run by Community Health and Counseling Services. But for parents of children with autism, he said, the need for support and information is much greater.
On the Web: www.asmonline.org.