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AUBURN — Misty Urben has noticed the stares and endured the comments from people when her son Alexander gets overstimulated in crowded places.

Seeing her son run around and play with a mile-wide smile on his face Saturday after the seventh annual Walk for Autism Awareness in Auburn made her feel like the community is accepting of autism.

"That's what we need, is the acceptance," said Misty, whose son Benjamin, 3, is also autistic.

Scores of people strolled through Casey Park for the walk, which is a fundraising event for the Auburn-based nonprofit E. John Gavras Center, which provides services to children with or without disabilities. Rebecca Reese, the event's organizer and the director of compliance and training for the center, said that while the function is a way to bring in funds for the center since it is a nonprofit, it more importantly brings the community together "so that families who are affected by this disease know what resources are available in our own community." Reese said she feels people should know that autism affects people in a variety of ways. 

Before the walk began, Reese praised people for attending the event despite the snow and gray skies.

"You always wonder, 'How successful is it going to be if you don't have beautiful weather?' So to have people come out with threat of snow at the end of April and sleet and any kind of weather you can imagine but they still come to support us, they still come to walk together in awareness and it reinforces why we do what we do," she said.

Bob Padula, the president of the center's board of directors, was thrilled to see crowds of people out for the event.

"It's just rewarding to see that the community believes in what the Gavras Center does for the community," he said.

Family and friends of Carter Damick, who has high-functioning autism, were decked out in gray sweatshirts that had a Dr. Suess quote on the front and the hashtag #teamcarter on the back. Carter's father, Brandon, helped Carter, 5, bundle up into a sweatshirt that featured both the hashtag and the words "I'm Carter." At one point, his mother, Cassie, held Carter in her arms, her head touching his. She said someone wouldn't know Carter has autism "unless I told you or he was in a crowd."

"He is typical to his peers," she said.

Eleanor Pidlypchak held onto her mother Harmony Pidlypchak's hand with one hand and a flower gifted to her by her sister Winifred with the other. Eleanor gave the "fun fact" about herself that she has autism but wasn't diagnosed until recently. Eleanor said she is often bullied by others, but she proudly talked about her reading skills as her mother encouraged her.

Wendy Brinkerhoff, a teacher aide at Seward Elementary School said she and her fellow aides Marissa Swietoniowski and Michelle Pinckney — who had her son James O'Hora in tow — were among those in the Seward Friends, a group of school employees who get together every year to support children with autism in the school.

"We just want to raise awareness that people with autism deserve to be treated equal and they deserve to have the voice just like everyone else," Brinkerhoff said.

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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