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Thankful for daughter’s gains, the Savino family heads back to Autism Walk

Seventy-five friends and relatives joined team “Sophia’s Wish” four years ago, the first time the Savino family of Lockport participated in The Summit Center Autism Walk. With such an outpouring of support, the family knew it was not alone as it tackled a new challenge.

The group gathered in support of little Sophia Savino, who had been diagnosed at the age of 2 with autism, her mother Lauren recalled.

“Sophia was extremely challenging at 2,” Lauren said of her daughter, who had lost the ability to express herself with language between 15 and 18 months.

“But she started working with a therapist through The Summit Center’s Early Autism Program and within one month, we noticed a difference,” Lauren said.

“At 3, she enrolled in a half-day integrated program with Summit, and was in the full-day program the year after that. Now she’s in kindergarten at Summit Academy.

“Sophia just turned 6 and she’s the happiest little girl,” Lauren added. “She communicates and has started to engage and parallel play.”

The Savino family, which also includes father Greg and little brother, Brady, age 3, will be front and center again during the 17th annual Summit Center Autism Walk at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The walk is held at The Summit Center, 150 Stahl Road, Getzville, and participants may register and/or donate online at www.summitwalk.org. The goal this year is to raise $375,000 and organizers expect more than 3,500 participants.

Money raised from the event will support the more than 30 Summit Center programs that serve roughly 2,700 Western New York children and adults each year.

“Events such as this are critical to nonprofit organizations like Summit that face continued reductions in governmental funding,” said Stephen R. Anderson, Ph.D., chief executive officer of The Summit Center. “We appreciate everyone’s support in bringing greater awareness to the many challenges facing local children, adults and families who live the challenges of autism every day.

“With one in every 68 children affected by autism, the need for better understanding has never been greater,” Anderson added. “It’s also important to understand that while there is no known cause or cure for autism, if we intervene early using evidence-based behavioral treatment, children make great progress.”

These thoughts are echoed by Lauren Savino, who was a special-education teacher prior to Sophia’s diagnosis. She currently works for Women & Children’s Hospital’s Early Childhood Direction Center, supporting children with disabilities and their families.

“I think The Summit Center is one of the best in the country – they’re way ahead of what’s offered in other states,” Savino said. “They have very high expectations, but they support the child and family all along the way.”

Autism is a complex neurological disorder characterized by significant difficulties with repetitive/restrictive behavior, communication and socialization. Experts maintain it is more common in boys, affecting one in every 54, and often occurring in both sexes prior to age 3. It is a lifelong disorder found in those with mild symptoms who can function independently in society to those with severe delays in all areas of development who require continuous supervision.

The Summit Center, formerly Summit Educational Resources, has expanded beyond education, and maintains a staff of more than 600 professionals in autism and social/emotional development and offering more than 30 programs in four divisions: early intervention and education, behavioral health, community and adult.

Savino said she and her family hope that events like the Autism Walk help educate the public, so that it will be “more open-minded and welcoming” to people with the disorder.

She said the walk also helps provide funding “for additional services outside of the educational component.”

Participating walkers may choose one of two routes: a 2.2-mile loop along the Amherst Bike Path or a half-mile walk around Summit grounds. Entertainment will be provided by DJ Mike Setlock, with appearances from Captain America and Sabretooth. Food, beverages and a basket raffle also will be offered during the festivities.

Paddock Chevrolet is presenting sponsor for the event. Other sponsors include Tops Friendly Markets, Independent Health and M&T Bank. Media sponsors include WKBW-TV, The Buffalo News, Entercom Buffalo, WGRZ and Time Warner Cable.