Thousands of people turned out at Jones Beach State Park despite chilly, windy weather Sunday to draw awareness to autism.
The Walk Now for Autism Speaks drew participants from across Long Island and New York City as many took part in the 3-mile jaunt along the boardwalk. "The greatest walk, not only on Long Island but in New York State," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) after high-fiving many people who walked past him.
Later, in an interview, he said: "I come every year. It's a tradition," adding that he has fought hard for awareness of autism since being elected to the Senate in 1999.
Event organizers, noting that 1 in 68 children has an autism spectrum brain developmental disorder, said they expected roughly 20,000 participants, fewer than previously anticipated, due to weather conditions at the four-hour walk Sunday.
John Beyer, chairman of the Long Island chapter of Autism Speaks, said the group hoped to raise $1.4 million at the event.
"It's urgent, it's crucial that we raise funds and awareness for autism research," he said, adding the collected money would go toward treatment, research and other services.
"What is very special about today is we are walking with people that are with us, that understand us," said Michael Giangregorio, program and services chairman for the Long Island board of Autism Speaks. "There are times when we go out into the community and people misbehave. We get looks and stares, but on this day everyone is together. Everyone is sympathetic and no one is judgmental."
Deer Park resident Denise Hill-James, who was on hand to help at the fundraiser, brought her son, 20, who has autism.
"It's challenging," she said, of raising an autistic child. She said she feels as if she has to explain her situation to people who don't understand autism. "More people should become aware," she said.
Oyster Bay resident Lisa Brownstein echoed that sentiment. "People with autism want to be understood and accepted for who they are, which is intelligent people," said Brownstein, 39, who wore a "Team Harris" T-shirt in honor of her son, 12, who was also at the walk.
Delroy Prince, 62, of Queens, said he participates in the walk annually to support his 5-year-old grandson, and that he often learns about the latest technology, research and available programs involving autism that may help the boy.
"People don't always understand autism," Prince said.