A sign outside Indigo Schuy advertises a promotion for Autism Awareness Day.

by Paula M. Riley

Chestnut Hill joined in Light It Up Blue, a worldwide effort on Monday, April 2 to raise awareness of autism. Up and down Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, stores and restaurants strung bright blue lights in celebration of World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD).

Five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared April 2 World Autism Awareness Day to bring the world’s attention to autism. Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, created Light It Up Blue in 2010. To alert the world about this growing public health concern, Chestnut Hill business joined more than 2,000 iconic structures, landmarks and buildings across the globe to shine blue lights.

Autism is the general term to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences and are usually characterized by social and behavioral challenges as well as repetitive behaviors.

A recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated that one out of every 88 American children (1 in 54 boys) are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. This represents a 1,000 percent increase in the past 40 years, which Autism Speaks explains is only partly explained by improved testing methods.

“The CDC numbers are alarming, yet they don’t begin to tell the story of the real families, real individuals struggling every day,” said Autism Speaks President Mark Roithmayr.  “From fighting to get a diagnosis and secure appropriate educational services and therapies, to trying to manage tremendous financial and emotional burdens or find a satisfying job opportunity, families are engaged in a daily battle against this disorder.”

Calling attention to the personal struggles and daily challenges of the families with children on the spectrum is exactly what local organizer Cynthia Day hopes to accomplish.

“When areas businesses show their support for this initiative, they have the ability to generate great discussions about autism and the challenges our community faces,” said Day, Chair of Public Relations for Philadelphia Walk Now for Autism Speaks.

Kilian’s Hardware, Artisans on the Avenues, Roots, Inc., Mango, Fiesta III, Campbell’s, and O’Doodles Toy Store are some of the local retailers that participated in the World Autism Awareness Day.

Indigo Schuy, a new active wear retailer in the 8400 block of Germantown Ave., plans to do more than just raise awareness; they will be donating a portion of Monday’s sales to Autism Speaks.

“We, like so many others, have friends and families whose children have autism spectrum disorders,” said owner Schuy Nunn. “With the startling rise in people diagnosed with autism, we at Indigo Schuy want to join this global effort and do our part to help others facing the challenges that accompany this disorder.”

Kate O’Neill of the Chestnut Hill Community Association said this commitment to others is what makes Chestnut Hill store owners special.

“Stores here are so attached to the community that they have a real feel for the shoppers,” she said. “This day is just another opportunity for shops to say ‘I know these people, I am these people.’ It’s a way for them to pay if forward.”

Kilian’s Hardware is selling the blue lights to shop owners at cost and O’Doodles has decorated its entire store-front window in blue décor.

Owner Fran O’Donnell said that O’Doodles offers something for families with autism every day.

“Our whole philosophy at O’Doodles is unplugged,” he said. “We provide unplugged toys for kids of all abilities, whether they are on the spectrum or not. Hopefully these are things that can be used for all kids to increase social abilities and encourage interaction with other kids through play.”

World Autism Awareness Day is serves as an opportunity to celebrate the unique talents and skills of people with autism, and features community events around the world where individuals with autism and their families are warmly welcomed and embraced. For more information, visit www.autismspeaks.org.