JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCHORD, WASH. -- For the majority of Lt. Col. Rory Walley's formative years, he remembers having a passion for cars. He said it all began with his father's auto detailing business in Walla Walla, Washington, which led to his interest in rebuilding vehicles, and ultimately, his love of autocross racing -- a timed competition in which drivers navigate one at a time through a defined course.

"I learned how to detail a car before I learned how to drive one," Walley recalled. "Dad always had a project car around."

As the years passed, Walley rebuilt a few cars, honed his autocross skills on nearby race tracks, and went on to own and eventually sell his childhood cars, a 1972 Vega, 1976 Datsun station wagon, 1969 Chevrolet El Camino, and 1976 Ford Bronco. He even managed to stay involved with racing after he joined the Army in 1993, and married his wife, Stacie, in 2000.

But what the auto enthusiast couldn't have foreseen, was that his love of cars would one day serve as a vehicle for autism awareness … one puzzle piece at a time.

"Our son, Benjamin, was diagnosed with autism just prior to his second birthday," he said.
Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. Since April 1970, the month of April has been designated as National Autism Awareness Month.

Walley, an operations officer assigned to Regional Health Command-Pacific at JBLM, admitted that he and Stacie didn't know that much about autism at the time.

But with Ben's diagnosis 14 years ago, that changed.

"(In the beginning) Ben did not speak. He had sensory concerns with things he did not like, and there were other things he would really focus on," he explained. "We also discovered he had hearing problems."

Not long after their son's diagnosis, the Walleys began doing their research to learn more about autism.

"We learned that autism covers a wide range of behaviors and abilities. We discovered that it affects many people and not just the person who is diagnosed, but family, friends, and anyone they come in contact with," Walley explained.

The couple also started getting involved with autism-focused events, such as the annual Autism Speaks Walk in Washington D.C. and Seattle, and other organizations that promote autism awareness.

Caring for a child with autism can bring unique challenges. Walley said he is grateful for the health care his family receives as beneficiaries of the military health system. He went on to say that staying connected to autism groups also has advantages.

"Getting involved allows us to keep up with the autism resources that are available," Walley said.

Last year, Walley, who placed second at the Northwest Regional Series Championship, decided to take autism awareness to another level by transforming his 2017 autocross race car into a billboard on wheels.

"The Ford Focus RS has 68 puzzle pieces," Walley explained. "Sixty-seven are gray and black, and 1 is blue -- representing the one in 68 children with Autism Spectrum Disorder," he said.

QR codes are also placed on the car to highlight autism events in the local area. And for good measure, Walley added the Army logo on the roof of the car. So, it's no surprise whenever he takes the car to the local track, it instantly becomes a conversation starter.

"Sometimes folks recognize that the puzzle piece is related to autism, and other times I have to explain it a bit," he said. "When I start explaining that there are 68 puzzle pieces, with one being blue, for the one in 68 with autism, it adds a bit more to the conversation. Often people say they did not realize the meaning of the numbers."

Since the Ford's debut, it's been on the race track quite a bit, as well as on display at the 2017 grand opening of the JBLM Center for Autism Resources, Education and Services; the Autism Speaks Walk in Seattle; and the 2017 Auburn-Fest Car Show, where it won the 2017 Auburn Fest Award.

"During these events, most of the cars on display are hands off to the public," Walley said. "We usually encourage kids to climb in and put on the four-point harness and get a picture taken."

Not entirely surprising, Ben, who is now 16 and in the 10th grade, is following in his father's footsteps.

"Ben has always been interested in automotive engines," Walley said. "He started driving once he got his driving permit at 15 and already has three races under his belt."

Interestingly, Walley said that Ben's autism provides him with a unique perspective on the race track.

"For example, before each race, we walk the track to decide what lines we will drive, when to break, and when to give it gas," he explained. "Ben is able to tell me what I should do before I even get behind the wheel, and he's usually right on money."

Although it's been a few decades since Walley detailed a car and took his first spin around a race track, he's still doing what he loves today, while helping to inform and educate the public about autism.