Ben Rowan believes that autism is worth singing about.
Rowan, 25, a teacher in the autism program at Atlantic Coast High School, and an accomplished singer-songwriter, has combined his musical talent with his passionate support of children with autism to compose a song that he hopes will go beyond simply raising awareness of the disorder.
The song was inspired by Amy Smith, one of the teachers with whom Rowan worked last year when he served as a paraprofessional in the autism program at Lorretto Elementary School. Described by co-workers as “very powerful,” Rowan said the song, titled, Into the Deep Blue, is about “coming together as a force.
“I’m a firm believer that the more people that are aware of this condition the better in terms of moving away from just awareness and into deeper action.”
Rowan and over 1,000 fellow educators, families and friends of children with autism took just such action recently by walking among wild animals at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens as part of the third annual HEAL (Healing Every Autistic Life) Zoo Walk.
“Organizations like HEAL that raise money that goes directly toward helping kids is the next step beyond just awareness,” said Rowan, who plans to record and release Into the Deep Blue to raise funds in support of those with autism spectrum disorders.
ASDs are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disorder stretches along a spectrum of severity from functional to severely disabled, and the CDC estimates that they affect an average of 1 in 110 children in the United States.
“It’s quite a crisis throughout our schools and community,” said Leslie Weed, a HEAL co-founder, along with husband Bobby, a major golf course designer. “What HEAL’s trying to do is alleviate some of the costs that are associated with having autism. We raise money specifically to go back into the greater Jacksonville community.”
The Ponte Vedra-based nonprofit has raised more than $1 million since its inception in 2004, including more than $40,000 at this year’s walk. It has given $750,000 to the community in the form of grants that help support educational programs, community projects and provide financial aid for families. It also puts on surf, film, golf and other camps that last year served 100 kids at no cost to parents.
Many of those parents were out in force at the Zoo Walk but perhaps none more than Rashand and Joe Glespen, who came 54-people-strong in support of their four-year-old son, Andy. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Andy’s Army” (Andy’s shirt read, “I’m Andy and this is my Army”), the large group stood out among many others whose shirts and signs associated them with schools, businesses or individual children.
“He’s got quite the fan club,” said Rashand Glespen, identifying the “army” as friends, family and co-workers. “Having this kind of support makes all the difference.”
It was Glespen’s first Zoo Walk in a year full of many notable firsts. Andy began school at Greenfield Elementary in Southside in August 2010 and September 2010 marked the first time that he had ever voluntarily kissed his parents.
“We have different things that we get to celebrate that some people take for granted,” said Glespen. She credits Andy’s teachers at Greenfield for much of his progress and pointed out that it’s been a learning experience for the entire family.
“The school has taught us a lot of things that we can do at home to recognize what’s going on, and that’s helped us with our communication,” Glespen said.
That has included awareness that Andy is a visual learner. The family, including 6-year-old brother, Joseph, who used to act as Andy’s “little spokesperson,” now uses strategies such as visual picture schedules. That’s a storyboard-like set of pictures and accompanying words that communicate the steps in an activity.
The type of progress that Andy has made is no surprise to another HEAL co-founder, pediatrician Julie Buckley.
“Autism is a whole body medical illness that can be treated,” said Buckley. “When you treat that whole body medical illness, our children do heal and they do recover.”
Buckley and the Weed’s each have daughters with autism, which fuels their passion and informs their decisions regarding HEAL. Their ultimate goal is to build “HEAL House”, which Buckley describes as a “kind of one-stop-shopping where it’s all under one roof: therapeutic services and programs.”
The types of people that supported the Zoo Walk will one day make that goal a reality, Buckley said. Among them was a group called Project Chance, which provides service dogs for children with autism, as well as several Jacksonville Jaguar cheerleaders and professional football players. They included Jaguars Brad Meester and Uche Nwaneri, Chicago Bear Robbie Gould and former Jaguar (now Cleveland Brown) Tony Pashos. Pashos and wife Michelle, a speech therapist, have been active on the HEAL board since his Jaguar days, and she chaired the fundraiser this year.
“It’s so good to know that there are so many people out there who are passionate and willing to change this world for the better when it comes to these children,” said songwriter Rowan. “But it’s not about us; it’s about the kids and it’s important to let them know that we’re all in this together.”
NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Florida Times-Union.