ROCKINGHAM — One Richmond County family walked several laps around the track at Raider Stadium this weekend in a virtual 5K for Autism Awareness month in honor of one of their own.
Four-year-old Elias Watkins, who attends Sandhills Children’s Center, was recently diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
Elias is the youngest grandson in the family and his cousin, Demi Watkins, is married to Nicole Bowles — who happens to be treasurer of the Autism Society of North Carolina’s Richmond County Chapter.
Bowles said 24 family members signed up for the event; some walked on Saturday and those who couldn’t make it walked on Sunday.
She said the team name was All Aboard the Elias Train “because he loves trains.”
Participants ranged in age from under 2 to over 70.
Next year, they’re hoping to have a larger event, Bowles said.
Bowles has an affinity for autistic children, having previously taught at Sandhills Children’s Center for seven years.
“When I started working at Sandhills, I didn’t even know what autism was,” she said.
But when she had four autistic students in her class, she asked for more training and one thing led to another. She recently finished classes to become a registered behavior technician.
Bowles has worked with special needs children both young and older, spending one semester working with exceptional children at Anson High School. She’s currently a pre-K teacher at Mineral Springs Elementary.
April is recognized as Autism Acceptance Month.
In 1970, the Autism Society “launched an ongoing nationwide effort to promote autism awareness and assure that all affected by autism are able to achieve the highest quality of life possible,” according to the organization’s website.
Two years later, the Autism Society started National Autistic Children’s Week, which has since grown to encapsulate the entire month to bring awareness and acceptance of the wide-ranging condition.
In March, the Autism Society announced that it was changing the reference from “Awareness Month” to “Acceptance Month.”
According to the Autism Society, the rate of autism in children was one in 125 in 2010. Last year, the CDC reported that it had increased to one in 54.
Last April, Bowles and Ashley Arey — an exceptional children’s teacher at Washington Street School — painted rocks for Autism Awareness Month and placed them along walking trails in the county.
The local Autism Society chapter is led by the mother-daughter team of Marcia and Meghann Lambeth. The latter Lambeth, who also works as the county’s tourism director, has a son with autism.
The organization normally has monthly meetings — which have been on hold the past year due to COVID-19 restrictions — that allow children to play and explore, and parents to unite in common experiences and share useful information, Meghann Lambeth said.
Its next meeting at 5:30 April 29 at the Hitchcock Creek Greenway.