When Michael Giangregorio’s youngest child, Nicholas, was diagnosed with autism at 22 months, the father of two from Long Island, New York, had a choice: He could dwell on his anger or he could do something constructive.
Giangregorio took the latter route. Today, he’s the chair of the Long Island Executive Committee for Autism Speaks, a national nonprofit advocacy group for people with autism. Giangregorio’s committee plans the largest annual autism fundraiser in the world: a community walk in New York’s Jones Beach State Park. The event, which attracted 27,000 people
last year, raises money for autism research and awareness—and gives many families a chance to connect with others affected by autism. “It’s a day when these families can be out like anyone else,” Giangregorio says.
As the size of Giangregorio’s walk shows, his son is far from alone. Autism affects 1 percent of U.S. children—that’s a staggering one in every 110 children. “This is is a national healthcare crisis,” says Pat Kemp, executive vice president of awareness and events at Autism Speaks. Kemp, whose son is on the autism spectrum, is proud to support the organization’s key goals: funding scientific research, promoting government advocacy, and providing guidance and other support services for families.
This last goal is crucial, since access to proper autism information, diagnosis, treatment, and support is often lacking. Autism Speaks strives to make a difference for these kids and their parents, Kemp says. One example: The organization is advocating for amended state insurance laws, as most states currently don’t cover autism therapies. Some families, like the Giangregorios, have even had to take out a second mortgage to cover the cost of treatment.
Autism Speaks may be a big organization, but it encourages grassroots efforts across the country. More than 80 fundraising walks take place every year, averaging more than 5,000 attendants each. “There’s not a volunteer who isn’t completely passionate and moved about what we do when they see the faces of these kids and adults,” Giangregorio says. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”