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April 3, 2014

Stepping up for autism is a family affair

TIFTON — Autism now affects one in 68 children and one in 42 boys, according to the organization Autism Speaks, which has grown into the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization. The month of April is celebrated nationally as Autism Awareness Month, and one local family and restaurant is helping with this effort by hosting an event Saturday to raise money for this year’s Walk Now For Autism Speaks.

In 2011, Amanda Larkin and her husband, Nick, along with several family members, participated in the walk in Atlanta as “Team Larkin” in support of their two autistic sons, Nicholas “Niko” who was three years old at the time and Joseph “Joe” who was 22 months old. Now ages six and four, the boys’ three-year-old sister, Athena, has now been diagnosed with autism as well.

Larkin said her 18-month-old daughter, Alessandra, hasn’t been diagnosed as autistic, but she has a sensory processing disorder. Her 16-year-old brother, Alex Martinez, is also autistic. She also has another brother who has ADHD and his daughter has ADHD as well.

Larkin said they’re planning to visit Augusta soon to see a geneticist. The whole family will be tested.

“My kids are opening the door for the whole family to be tested,” she said. “Our family is just a good genetic study.”

Many of the family members are employed with the local restaurant Ranchero’s Fresh Grill, including Larkin and her husband; her brother who has ADHD; her sister and brother-in-law, Jorge Leon, who is the manager; her cousin; and her brother, Martinez, who volunteers.

Larkin and Leon said Martinez has been volunteering at Ranchero’s for a little over a year. He helps with ice, trays and cleaning the tables. Before his recent surgery, he would volunteer two or three times a week whenever he felt like it.

“It made him feel some sense of worth, because he’s limited to what he can do,” his mother said. Larkin added it makes him feel accomplished.

She said Ranchero’s was the perfect place to host their event, “Until All the Pieces Fit,” where puzzle pieces can be purchased for $1 each from customers all day Saturday in support of Autism Awareness Month and Autism Speaks. The puzzle pieces will be displayed in the restaurant with contributors’ names on them.

The idea to sell puzzle pieces came from the national symbol for autism. According to Autism Society, the puzzle pattern reflects the mystery and complexity of the autism spectrum.

Larkin said Martinez is a great artist. He will be drawing puzzle pieces for the flyers, as well as for Saturday’s event. Larkin’s niece will also be setting up a table inside the restaurant to sell cupcakes in support of the cause.

Ranchero’s will be raising money at all three of their locations (Douglas, Waycross and Tifton) Saturday. Luke Christian owns Ranchero’s, and Brandon Wiederhold is the manger of the Douglas location. Larkin said for every donation raised, Ranchero’s will match it.

She commented, “Ranchero’s is so understanding of special needs, especially autism.” She also said her brother-in-law works so well with her husband when they have appointments for their children.

The family plans to participate in the Walk Now For Autism Speaks again this year in Orlando or Atlanta. Autism Speaks is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.

“The awareness needs to be out there. Now that it’s one in 68, you’re going to see it more and more everywhere you go,” Larkin said.

She added that by people being more aware of what autism is, they can recognize it, be more understanding and maybe even offer a kind gesture to help a family out who has an autistic child.

To contact reporter Latasha Ford, call 382-4321.

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Jensen Rainey (left) and Josie Arant will both be participating in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship next week in North Carolina.

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