Carefully searching for the right words, Brian Aylmer paused for a moment Saturday when he was asked what it is like to have an autistic child.
“It’s hard,” he said matter-of-factly. “Autistic children have a lot more challenges than other kids. They have delays in their speech and communication. The communication piece is probably the hardest.”
Aylmer and his wife, Beth, have three autistic children, daughters Shannon, 10, Cailey, 9, and Kelsey, 6. Shannon and Kelsey speak a little, while Cailey is nonverbal, making communication difficult at times, Aylmer explained.
The Aylmers, of Clayton, N.J., don’t know what caused their daughters’ autism, but they are determined to find out. For the past eight years, they have organized a fundraising event called the Sea Isle City Wiffle Classic to benefit Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy group.
The event, at Sea Isle’s Dealy Field, attracted people from as far away as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Utah and Texas on Saturday. Aylmer said he hoped to raise between $9,000 and $10,000 for Autism Speaks.
More than 50 Whiffle ball teams, comprised of players of all ages, competed in sweltering heat to raise money for autism programs and awareness.
Sea Isle business owners John and Carol McGowan and their autistic 11-year-old son, Owen, were among the hundreds of people who watched the games. They were joined by Owen’s sister, Brynne, 17, and 14-year-old brother, J.P.
The McGowans, owners of McGowan’s Market at 39th Street and Landis Avenue, were one of the business sponsors of the fundraiser.
Owen had been looking forward to the event all week. John McGowan said Owen isn’t always flexible because of his autism, so it is important to prepare him for trips or outings ahead of time.
“All week long, we were telling him, ‘Saturday, we’re going to the shore and to the ball field,”‘ McGowan said.
Owen is a highly functional autistic child, attending a regular elementary school near the McGowans’ home in Oreland, Pa., his family said. His mother noted that Owen is good in math and hopes to become a Lego designer when he grows up.
“He’s so good,” she said. “We’re so blessed. He’s brought so much joy into our home.”
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.
Researchers still haven’t pinpointed the cause of autism, although genetic and environmental factors are strongly suspected. Once known as “infantile schizophrenia,” autism has become more prevalent in recent years, and doctors don’t know why.
“It’s being diagnosed more,” Aylmer said. “Pediatricians are looking for it now more than they did 20 years ago.”
On average, one in 68 children will be diagnosed with autism, Aylmer said. He and his wife have been through it not once, not twice, but three times with their daughters.
Despite the challenges of having three autistic children, Aylmer stressed that his household is “not wildly different” than other families.
“We might have a few more tantrums,” he said of his daughters. “If there is something bothering them, it might be more difficult for us to figure it out.”
His daughters all use iPads to help them communicate. Therapists visit the Aylmer household a few days a week to assist in their care and development.
Shannon, Cailey and Kelsey participate in sibling studies on autism. It is another way that the Aylmer family is helping the research community in its quest to find the cause.
Originally from Minnesota, Aylmer was drawn to Sea Isle as the location for the autism fundraiser because his uncle, Joe Aylmer, lives in town. Now, the entire Aylmer family is involved in the event.
Sea Isle’s business community has also made autism a special cause. For instance, Mike’s Seafood Restaurant on Park Road sponsors the annual Polar Bear Run-Walk for Autism.
“Sea Isle’s business community has been very good in supporting autism causes,” John McGowan said.