By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
John Ferry noticed that there was something different about his son, Kevin, who was 2 years old at the time.
“He would be in his own little world. He would be off on his own,” Ferry recalled. “He wasn’t speaking or communicating, either.”
Ferry and his wife, Patricia, who live in Havertown, Pa., consulted with a doctor and learned that Kevin was autistic.
“It was heartbreaking,” Ferry said of the diagnosis.
However, Kevin, now 4, is doing “phenomenal” these days with the help of his therapy and will be entering kindergarten next year, Ferry noted.
Kevin had plenty of support backing him up Saturday during the 11th annual Sea Isle City Wiffle Ball Classic, a fundraising event that benefits Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy group.
The event at Sea Isle’s Dealy Field attracted about 250 people from as far away as Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Utah and was expected to raise between $11,000 and $12,000 for Autism Speaks, according to organizer Brian Aylmer.
Altogether, 55 wiffle ball teams were out on the field to raise money. One of them wore green T-shirts with the words “Team Kevin” on the back in honor of Kevin Ferry.
In addition to his parents and his “team,” Kevin was joined by his 11-year-old brother, James, and 8-year-old sister, Margaret. When his father asked him whether he was happy with all the attention he was receiving, Kevin smiled and shook his head yes.
Statistically speaking, one out of every 59 children born in the United States will be diagnosed with autism, compared to one in 125 just 10 years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Autism is a general term for complex disorders of brain development. Depending on the severity of the disorder, autistic people may have difficulties with social interaction and communication. They may also engage in repetitive behavior.
Many autistic children and adults are considered “high-functioning.” Kevin Ferry falls within that group, his father said.
“He’s talking all the time. He’s in pre-school now,” John Ferry said. “He’s expected to enter kindergarten next year in a regular school.”
Albert D’Elia, of Havertown, Pa., noted that his autistic 11-year-old son, Luke, who will enter sixth grade in the fall, also functions at a high level. Wearing a Phillies cap and jersey, Luke was out on the field Saturday taking swings at the wiffle ball.
“He’s in the gifted program at Haverford Middle School in Havertown,” D’Elia said proudly of his son.
Aylmer said doctors don’t know why autism has become more prevalent in recent years. Aylmer and his wife, Beth, have three children who are autistic, daughters, Shannon, 13, Cailey, 12, and Kelsey, 10. Their 5-year-old son, Danny, does not have autism.
The medical world has not yet discovered what causes autism, although researchers strongly suspect a combination of environmental and genetic factors, Aylmer said
In the meantime, Aylmer and his wife, who live in Clayton, N.J., are determined to raise money to support autism-related causes and help researchers pinpoint the cause one day.
Brian Aylmer estimated that the Sea Isle Wiffle Ball Classic has raised a total of around $125,000 for Autism Speaks during its 11-year history.
“They’re very appreciative. They are very supportive of us. They have been really great,” Aylmer said of Autism Speaks.
Aylmer also expressed his gratitude to the local businesses that sponsor the event, as well as the people who travel across country each year to come to Sea Isle. Another measure of the event’s success is the number of people who have returned year after year.
Tammy Plett, of Stockton, Utah, who is a close friend of the Aylmers, has been taking part in the Wiffle Ball Classic for six years.
“Beth and Brian have three autistic girls that we just love. We want to support them. The more they feel they’re loved, the better off they’ll be,” Plett said of why she is so committed to traveling to Sea Isle each year.
Aylmer said he is amazed that so many people give up so much of their time every year to help raise money and awareness for autism-related causes at the Wiffle Ball Classic.
“It’s incredible. All of these folks coming from that far away are our close friends and family. It means a lot,” he said.
The Sea Isle community has made autism a special cause for years. For instance, Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant on Park Road sponsors the annual Polar Bear Plunge Run-Walk for Autism, a major fundraiser in February.