COLUMBIA — Two local organizations partnered to donate money to MU's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders last week, helping kick off Autism Awareness Month in Columbia.
World Autism Awareness Day, which has been held every April 2 since 2008, highlights a month full of events designed to benefit autism organizations worldwide and promote awareness of the disorder, a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects roughly 1 million U.S. children and teens.
The day had added importance this year, following recently updated estimates of autism's prevalence. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings that increased its estimate of the disorder's frequency to 1 in every 88 children, based on 2008 data from 14 states. Previously, the CDC had estimated that the disorder affected 1 in every 110 children, based on 2006 data from 11 states.
In Missouri, that number jumps to 1 in every 72 children, as found by the Missouri Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Project, a collaborative effort led by Washington University in St. Louis that screened more than 25,000 children in St. Louis City and St. Louis, Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles counties for its study.
Currently, no data exists for Columbia or Boone County because the city's Department of Public Health and Human Services doesn't track autism, public health planner Linda Cooperstock said.
A local effort
This year, Marathon Building Environments partnered with Fresh Ideas' Food Service kitchen — located at Stephens College — to hold an online bake sale benefiting MU's Thompson Center. The sale raised $750 for the center, which will likely be used to provide services to families needing financial assistance or for the center's early intervention program.
Cheryl Unterschultz, senior information specialist at the center, attributed the increased estimates to greater awareness and advanced diagnostic tools through research.
The center, located on Portland Street near the Women's and Children's Hospital, saw a more than 10 percent spike in its number of annual visits, to around 10,000 between 2010 and 2011.
"We are always busy at the Thompson Center, and always have been," Unterschultz said.
Unterschultz touted the benefits of early intervention, saying: "It makes the difference. The earlier a child can be diagnosed and receive early intensive behavior intervention, the better their chances of having an independent, productive future."
Unterschultz cited examples of children being unable to speak and uninterested in social interaction at age 2 or 3, but after going to the center for a year, learning to speak in complete sentences and initiate conversations.
Marathon decided to raise funds for the center in conjunction with World Autism Awareness Day after Jim O'Neill, a maintenance service technician at the center, mention the day's importance. Previously, the center purchased furnishings and window treatments through Marathon.
"It just made sense for us to partner with them," said Larry Schuster, Marathon's Pioneer Window Works manager. "We do have a team member here that has a child with autism. So it was just serendipitous that everything was coming together."
Marathon and Fresh Ideas raised funds for the center between Wednesday and Friday last week through the online sale of cake pops — a ball of cake on a stick. The initial goal was to raise $250 by selling 10 dozen cake pops. By the end of the sale, Marathon had more than four times the number of orders it set out to make.
Kim Conrad, director of the Fresh Ideas' kitchen, and some assistants made 44 dozen — 528 — cake pops.
"We were thrilled to be able to do that for (Marathon), and knew we could handle it," she said. "It just meant a long weekend."