Hundreds of servicemembers rallied to show support and raise awareness at the Task Force Liberty Autism Awareness 5K Fun Run April 20 at the Camp Victory Morale, Welfare and Recreation stage.
Maj. Tony Struzik, 479th Engineer Battalion, coordinated the run to increase awareness of a disease his son Tyler, 9, and 1.5 million other individuals live with everyday. "One in every 94 males will be diagnosed autistic," Struzik, a Waterloo, N.Y., native, said. "It's reaching epidemic proportions and it's time to get awareness and support for autism."
Autism is a neurobiological disorder which strikes one in every 150 individuals. It affects the ability to communicate and socialize. Those with autism also have a tendency to perform repetitive behaviors. There is currently no known cause or cure for autism. There are many forms of treatment that, when started young, can significantly improve the individual's communication and relation skills.
Some key signs of autism in children include no big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months, no back and forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by nine months and no babbling, pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months.
Having grown children to base his daughter Alexis' development off, Chief Warrant Officer Art Gribensk, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, could quickly tell something was different about her. "When you know what normal development looks like, you notice when something's different," he said. Alexis, now almost 5, was developing obsessive behaviors such as lining up toys and other objects and she had abnormal reactions to normal stimulus. She also had difficulty bonding to more than one person. By themselves, these are normal developmental occurrences, Gribensk said. But combined, they signaled a problem.
"It's hard to have a child who can't express when things hurt or something's wrong," said Capt. Angela Gillie, Special Troops Battalion, 4th Infantry Division. Gillie, from Detroit, Mich., has a four-year-old son Jaylen, who's autistic.
"You know they care, they just don't react the same," Gribensk said. One of his fondest memories is the first time his daughter ran and hugged him when he got home from work.
Autism is one of a few autism spectrum disorders with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Other autism spectrum disorders include Rett Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Asperger's Syndrome. These children experience what Gribensk describes as "peaks and valleys" in their development. In some areas, they are ahead of their peers and in other areas, often the emotional based ones, they are far behind.
"You judge success in such a different way," Struzik said. "Every accomplishment my son has is so much more heartwarming and a little more special (than it would normally be)."
The Army offers as much support as possible to these families through the Exceptional Family Member Program. Alexis was entered into a program called Early Intervention at Fort Rucker, Ala., when she was two-years old. Early detection of autism is key to getting the necessary treatments and making the most difference in a child's social and communication skills, Gribensk said.
And, although stationed at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., Gribensk's family was moved on to Fort Stewart so his daughter could receive the care and treatment she needed. Her current school, Diamond Elementary, brings her support services into the classroom. "She's still going to regular school, and she's getting the help she needs."
Struzik said, although he's in the Reserves, he still gets a lot of support from the Army when it comes to finding good schools and medical treatment for Tyler.
Gillie commends her chain of command for letting her stay back and deploy at a later date so she could ensure all the necessary arrangements were made for the care of Jaylen. "It's great to have the military family behind me to support me."
The winners of the race were Brendan Spellman, Company A, SPTB, XVIII Airborne Corps, with a time of 17 minutes, 20 seconds and Hilary Mann, 716th Military Police Battalion, with a time of 20 minutes and 32 seconds. Mann, who has a background in physical education said autism awareness is a cause that's close to her heart. "Soldiers have children and family members who have this disorder," Mann said. "We need to be cognizant of the fact that we need to provide for these families."
Despite their differences, children with autism are still children all the same. Although they have some developmental differences, many of them are high-functioning, perceptive and intelligent. "Children with autism are a lot like other children," Gillie said. "People look at them and treat them differently, but they have feelings just like every other child. They just can't express them. Please don't treat them differently."
For more information on autism, visit