- Runners at Autism Oklahoma’s PieceWalk cross the starting line at last year’s event.
When his son Max was diagnosed with autism in the first grade, Phil Inzinga didn’t know where to turn. Luckily, a friend told him about Autism Oklahoma and its parent support groups.
After attending one meeting, Inzinga joined a unique community of parents uniting around a common goal to help their children. Books, the names of therapists and the personal experiences of other parents were shared.
“It is really great to find a community when you have a child diagnosed with autism,” Inzinga said. “It can be very isolating. You don’t want to go out because what if he has a meltdown? People wouldn’t understand. But then you find a group like Autism Oklahoma and that changes everything. You find there are a lot of people going through the same thing.”
The advice Inzinga and his family gleaned from the parents’ group has been extremely helpful over the years. Max, who is now 14, is thriving.
Each spring, when Autism Oklahoma’s signature event, PieceWalk, rolls around, the Inzinga family gets ready to celebrate. While the event is a fundraiser for families and individuals affected by autism, it is a day to celebrate differences and foster awareness and acceptance.
“The vibe is pure joy,” Inzinga said. “It is people coming together from all different walks of life who have this one thing in common: They all know someone with autism. They have been touched by it in one way or another. It really is a celebration.”
PieceWalk enters its 10th year May 5 at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, 2 S. Mickey Mantle Drive. The event features a 5K run beginning at 8 a.m. and a 9 a.m. walk. This year’s theme is Jurassic Dash.
In addition to the run and the walk, games, activities and a resource fair are offered on the ballpark grounds. While there is no cost to register for the walk, participating teams raise money by asking for donations from friends and family months and days before the event. There is a $35-$40 registration fee for 5K runners.
PieceWalk supports about half of the annual operating budget of Autism Oklahoma, a nonprofit offering free and low-cost programming to individuals with autism and their families. Programming includes family support groups that meet in 13 locations across Oklahoma and 42 outreach programs — art, filmmaking, Minecraft, music and more — for individuals with autism.
Last year, Autism Oklahoma served 4,500 Oklahomans, said Stacey Weddington, the organization’s director of community impact.
“I think one of the most exciting things for us is how we so uniquely fulfill our mission every day,” Weddington said. “We believe that every person with autism is unique and important and has something to offer. We help individuals with autism reach their potential. We help families thrive and help the community understand and embrace the difference.”
Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that one in 68 children have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. A development disability that affects communication and behavior, autism encompasses a wide range of symptoms from social awkwardness to the inability to interact and communicate.
Living with a loved one who has autism spectrum disorder is challenging, said Weddington. That’s why Autism Oklahoma provides support to families and programs to those with autism and raises community awareness about what autism is and isn’t.
With PieceWalk, all efforts are combined.
“This is a chance for people to see individuals with autism from 2-year-olds all the way through adulthood who are celebrating who they are,” Weddington said. “They are not ashamed of who they are; instead, they are talking about their interests and their talents while letting their community surround them with that joy and acceptance. We hope to expand that to the other 364 days of the year in other ways.”
Ready to walk
About 8,000 people are expected to fill Bricktown on the morning of PieceWalk. For the seventh year, the Inzinga family and members of their team, The Freckled Avenger, will be part of the crowd.
Inzinga, who co-hosts The Morning Animal on 98.1 FM WWLS The Sports Animal and an afternoon show on 96.9 BOB FM, said that colleague Ron “Spinozi” Benton came up with the team’s name.
“Max loves superhero movies, and Max has freckles,” said Inzinga, who serves on Autism Oklahoma’s board of directors. “Max can be really cantankerous. He has a profound sense of justice, or what he believes to be justice. We were talking about it one day, and he called him The Freckled Avenger. We liked it so much that we named our team after that.”
Teams tend to get creative with T-shirts and activities as well as their names leading up to the walk to raise money, said Weddington.
While PieceWalk shines a spotlight on people with autism, the event is one for the entire community.
“You don’t have to have someone in your family with autism to be a part of this event,” Weddington said. “We welcome every and anybody. A neighborhood association can have a team. A family can make a team. Anyone can make a donation to be supportive of that one in 68 people who live in our community and are impacted by autism.”