Sons' disorder gives her new reason to run
By Brandon Masuoka
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Brandon Masuoka
Hawai'i's Jeannie Wokasch Young has managed to keep a long-distance relationship with her two autistic sons.
Five years ago, the champion distance runner was frustrated to tears, unable to properly care for teen sons Christopher and Andrew, afflicted with the disabling disorder.
Christopher, 20, had been diagnosed with autism, and would harm himself and others. Andrew, 21, had a less severe case, but "was always getting picked on," and suffered a broken appendix from a beating by school kids, Wokasch Young said.
After finding limited autistic care centers in Hawai'i, Wokasch Young decided in 2000 to move her sons to California with her former husband so they could get professional help.
"I had to give them up," said Wokasch Young, 43, who stopped attending Hawai'i Pacific University to care for her sons. "It was tough love. I would go to centers, and they would say, 'No, your son would be a liability to other children.' Half the time I was walking out crying, saying, 'What am I supposed to do?' "
Wokasch Young's life-changing experience has her "Running for Autism" at the 2005 Honolulu Marathon on Sunday. She is raising funds for the Pacific Autism Center to help more children access high quality services. Organizers are asking a minimum donation of $26, which represents $1 per mile in the marathon. (See box at right).
Autism typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, according to the Autism Society of America. Autism can severely impact speech, communication and social interaction, the organization said.
Autism affects as many as one of every 166 children, and it is the fastest growing developmental disability at 10 to 17 percent annual growth, according to ASA.
Laura Cook, the president of the Pacific Autism Center, called Wokasch Young a perfect ambassador for the disorder.
"She has such a vibrant spirit," Cook said. "She's so giving, and wants so badly to help other families.
"She's come in here, and spent time watching the children, watching how we work with them, and she just sits there in tears," Cook added. "We've explained to her, we've had to turn families away because they cannot financially afford our services."
Cook said more than 1,100 youths in Hawai'i are autistic, according to state records.
A typical family can pay $50,000 to $100,000 annually on services for a child, said Cook, whose autistic son is making great improvement after five years of intensive treatments.
Cook said without intervention, autism generally will progress into a pronounced developmental disability at a young age.
"Early intervention is the key," Cook said. "When that window of opportunity is lost, it is very difficult to catch up."
Yesterday, Wokasch Young said she's focused on fundraising — not finishing times — as she prepares for Sunday's race.
Last year, she finished ninth among women runners in 2 hours, 55 minutes, 1 second.
"I don't care what time I come in, if I can cross that finish line and know I raised all that money for those kids, that's my goal," Wokasch Young said. "This is more exciting to me than winning the race."
Wokasch Young has already inspired a Houston couple with an autistic child to organize a fundraiser in their hometown. She also hopes of hosting an autism benefit running event, similar to the Race for the Cure breast cancer fundraiser.
"That would be a nice dream to have," she said.
Wokasch Young said she maintains a strong relationship with her sons. Christopher writes often and talks to her every week, while Andrew is in his second year in junior college, and visited her last year in Arizona, she said.
"They're doing great," said Wokasch Young, whose third son, Khonnor, 8, lives with her and husband, Craig. "They're great kids, and I miss them."
Reach Brandon Masuoka at firstname.lastname@example.org.