By Paula Ann Solis
First Lady Alice Starr kicked off the sixth annual Walk for Autism on Fountain Mall on Sunday by announcing a partnership between Baylor and Scott and White Healthcare.
The partnership would create a diagnostic clinic dedicated to recognizing the onset of intellectual disabilities.
Starr noted that the clinic and its research would be an important step for improving patients’ lives.
After Starr’s remarks, the event kicked off to live music for more than 400 walkers to enjoy as they circled Fountain Mall.
Entertainers included Eric Huggins and Thomas Smith UnPlugged, Diana Wilcox and the Shane Howard Band.
Children enjoyed games such as the beanbag toss, while other areas were dedicated specifically to the needs of autistic children.
One station made sensory balloons—deflated balloons filled with dried beans and rice.
The rough texture, when squeezed by a person on the autism spectrum, can create a calm feeling by activating senses in the hand.
Children also decorated large puzzle pieces, the international symbol for autism, at coloring stations.
Similar pieces will be used as decorations at the new center at Scott and White, which is scheduled to open next fall, Starr said.
Starr said she is excited about the partnership with Scott and White and mentioned that her commitment to the autism community began years ago as a sophomore in college.
“I was an intern and I worked with children who suffered from brain damage, and since then, I knew this was my passion,” she said.
One volunteer, Victoria graduate student, Sarah Skipper, shares Starr’s passion on a more personal level.
“My brother is autistic, so I’ve been really involved with raising awareness and got hooked with the Heart of Texas Autism Network early on,” Skipper said.
Though her brother could not make it to Sunday’s walk, Skipper said she volunteers and walks in his honor.
Skipper said in the last five years working as a volunteer coordinator, the most enjoyable part of the walks for her is getting to see how much fun the kids and their families have.
“It’s nice that they get to come and enjoy themselves and not have to worry about being stigmatized,” Skipper said.
Anita Karney, the event coordinator and a board member of the Heart of Texas Autism Network, was present with her son, who was diagnosed with autism.
Starr visited with several families throughout the event, answering questions from parents and interacting with children.
She also made stops at several of the organizations’ booths, thanking them for their efforts and applauding their hard work in the autism community.
One such organization was nonPareill Institute, a nonprofit technology company based in Plano that focuses their energy on what they believe to be the most underserved subpopulation in the autism community: adults.
“We’re training them in high technology schools much like you would find at a university or at a vocational school and we’re employing them to build apps and games for iPhones and Androids,” said Gary Moore, co-founder of the nonPareil Institute.
Several families visited with Moore and representatives from other organizations throughout the day and enjoyed the walk that was designed to feel like a festival.
Though many had fun, the event was a critical learning opportunity for the community.
Melinda Bell, Heart of Texas Autism Network board member and mother of an autistic child, said this event is about reminding families that they’re not out there alone.
For more information about the Heart of Texas Autism Network or Baylor’s Autism center, visit hotautismnetwork.org
Alexa Brackin contributed to this story.