Barto: The challenges of autism |

Barto: The challenges of autism

Sheryl Barto
Guest Commentary

Among my favorite quotes about autism is: “Look beyond the autism and you will see someone special.” Parents who have children with autism know this firsthand. And while our journeys are often heart-wrenching, even in the most difficult moments we can discover joy and hope in the most unexpected ways.

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 88 children in the U.S. has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder, according to a report released in March 2012. And autism spectrum disorder is almost five times more common among boys than girls. The mystery of what causes autism is truly a puzzle. So how fitting that a puzzle piece has become our symbol along with the color blue, representing one in 54 boys with autism. You might have just seen 82 NCAA basketball coaches wearing the puzzle pin on Feb. 1 supporting two of their own who have sons with autism.

As the numbers grow, more children and more parents need help in coping with these disorders in their schools and communities. And autism just doesn’t stop for school-aged children; it is a life span issue, presenting transition challenges from high school to young adulthood and beyond.

National nonprofit groups are working tirelessly to get more help for families on a national level. Last week, I spoke with the president of Autism Speaks, Liz Feld, whose current initiative is petitioning the White House to create a national plan to address autism. So far 150,000 people have signed the petition. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed nearly $200 million to research and developing innovative resources for families. Our local group, along with Autism Speaks, is continually working with the public, first responders and school districts as well as educating employers about the amazing gifts, abilities and skills among those with autism.

We are honored that Liz is making a trip to visit us in Aspen this weekend to support our local event, Light It Up Blue Aspen, that will not only raise money for Autism Speaks but also for our local group, Extreme Sports Camp, celebrating its tenth year of supporting kids with autism.

I should add that Extreme Sports Camp not only includes winter and summer residential and day camp, winter ski programs and after-school and weekend activities, they also are addressing these life span issues I mentioned above, with the addition of a young-adult enrichment program and adult employment options.

Thank you to several employers, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, who have supported our efforts by employing our young adults, including: Kenichi restaurant, Aspen; The Pullman, C.A.R.E, Glenwood Adventure Co., Garfield County Public Library, Southern Comfort Salon, Senior Matters, CMC Eagle Nest store and AWAKE, all in Glenwood Springs; Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, Basalt; and City Market and Carbondale Beer Works in El Jebel and Carbondale respectively.

A huge shout-out and thank-you also to Sallie Bernard, the founder of Extreme Sports Camp, who also sits on the national board for Autism Speaks. Without Sallie, we wouldn’t be where we are today with autism support in the Roaring Fork Valley. But there’s still so much work to be done.

Over the past two years, Light It Up Blue Aspen has raised $130,000 for the beneficiaries and an additional $27,000 for the Valley Autism Assistance Fund. We are proud to provide this fund to support families living with autism spectrum disorder who are in need of monetary support during emergencies and crises during life events.

This year’s third annual Light It Up Blue Aspen gala will be held at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Hotel Jerome. It’s an all-star lineup to raise awareness and funds for autism, including music by local favorite John Popper and Brother’s Keeper and special celebrity guest Jacqueline Laurita, of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, who has a young son recently diagnosed with autism. Other special guests include Ari Greenburg and Andrea Lee Greenburg. Ari Greenburg is a partner at WME, a talent and literary agency based in Beverly Hills, New York, Nashville and London. He and his wife, Andrea Lee, live in Los Angeles with their two children, Tyler and Avery. Tyler was diagnosed with autism when he was 20 months old.

We sincerely thank our sponsors Patron’s Ultimat Vodka, Aspen Peak magazine, Sentient Jet and Panerai. New this year is an automated auction system called BidPal, which allows guests to register and pre-bid online. Tickets are $250 per person and available at If you can’t make the event and still want to support our cause, there’s a donate button on the website, too.

Autism Speaks celebrates Light It Up Blue along with the international autism community. Aspen joins this global initiative two months early to kick-off Autism Awareness Month in April and to help raise awareness about autism along with Major League Baseball’s league-wide effort to help support the initiative.

I hope that you will join me on Sunday night or make a donation in support of local autism awareness and programs. For more information, please visit

Sheryl Barto has a young adult son who was diagnosed with autism in 2004. She is a senior communications director for GroundFloor Media in Denver. GroundFloor Media graciously donates PR services to Light It Up Blue Aspen through its Get Grounded program. Sheryl also owns her own PR firm, O Communications in Aspen. She can be reached at

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