Lincoln Avenue Elementary School third grader Wally Klein addressed his entire school over the PA system Friday to talk about his brother.
Klein, who spoke along with principal Kathleenann Cool, told everyone about his 7-year-old brother Nicky -- about the trouble his brother has making friends and about the smile Nicky constantly wears on his face. He told them that Nicky has autism.
"I would like to ask everyone, if you ever see Nicky or other kids with autism, try to be nice and say hello," Wally Klein said. "You would make my brother and other kids very happy."
Klein gave his speech as part of Light it Up Blue Rockland, a campaign to raise funds and awareness to help people with autism. It was also an example of how many people's lives are touched by autism, a neurological disorder which impedes the development of social and communication skills.
Prudential Joyce Realty in Pearl River held a launch of a month-long Light it Up Blue Rockland campaign in its offices and the municipal lot outside Friday afternoon -- drawing a crowd of local residents, orgnizations, businesses and officials.
"There is no question there has been an epidemic of the various forms over the last 15 years," said Legislator John Murphy (R-Pearl River), one of many local dignitaries who attended the event. "Today it is swallowing us up. Somebody said it is one in 110 births. We think it is one in 90 births (that is born with autism). Most of them are young men. We have an issue of not only worrying about taking care of them when they are young and at home, but society has to prepare for them in adulthood."
Murphy is the president of the board of directors of Camp Venture, which serves children with mental and developmental disabilities. He believes that people don't realize how much the numbers have gone up.
"The first circumstance is people believe the number is the result of more diagnoses and more accurate diagnosis," Murphy said. "People who weren’t diagnosed as autistic before now are. But if you allow for that, say 50 percent of the (autistic) population was there but not diagnosed, another 50 percent is still an astonishing number."
The event drew representatives of the Pearl River Women's Club and the Hudson Valley Chapter of Nam Knights of America. Clarkstown Police Department Detective Sargeant Tim O'Neill, a candidate Rockland County Sheriff, and Pearl River attorney Patrick J. Loftus, who is running for Orangetown Town Justice, were among the individuals showing their support.
Three members of the Orangetown Town Board also attended -- Supervisor Paul Whalen, Councilman Tom Diviny and Councilwoman Nancy Low-Hogan -- along with town clerk Charlotte Madigan and executive assistant to the supervisor's office Ann Marie Hahr. Whalen's own life has been touched by autism.
"For myself, I have a nephew, Tim Whalen, who has autism. My brother’s son. He was diagnosed at the age of two years old," Whalen said. "Any time an event like this comes up that involves children with handicaps or disabilities, it’s very important to me. I’m the father of a handicapped child. I think it is very important, especially today with all of the budget cuts and all of the things that are challenging to the disabled, that people stand up."
Whalen pointed to the importance of improving awareness of autism. One example he brought up is making sure police officers are trained to recognize when they are dealing with somebody who has a disability. Autism can come across as aloofness or belligerence. But there are other instances when awareness can help.
" If you met my nephew, you would have no idea what his skill set is," Whalen said. "And then if you started to engage him. Say you were another child who is 15. He might be speaking in a way that you might want to make fun of him or bully him.
"People, including children in our community, need to be aware of people with special needs. They need to make sure they are kind, considerate and gentle and that they are treated with respect."
Light it Up Blue was started by the charitable organization Autism Speaks in 2010 to help raise funds for autism research and awareness of the condition. They ask people to wear blue or display it in schools, government offices or businesses to spark conversation that will improve awareness of autism. Light It Up Blue is a month-long event. Over 40 businesses, most in Pearl River, have already committed to take part, with donations going to Autism Speaks. A full list and more details of their involvement can be found here.
Those interested in taking part can call 1-800-ask-joyce or email email@example.com. More information is available at http://www.lightitupbluerockland.com/
The Pearl River School District took part Friday, asking staff and students to wear blue, though the students at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School learned even more from one of their own. A video of his speech is posted on YouTube and attached to this article.