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Sharpsburg police officer organizes 5K to help fight autism

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

T.J. Burke is taking steps to raise awareness of autism.

His third annual Autism Frostbite 5K is a path to greater empathy, said Burke, 29, a Sharpsburg police officer who organized the walk-a-thon, which begins at 10 a.m. March 1 at North Park.

“I want people to understand what it feels like to live with autism,” he said. “Maybe we can learn to be a little more sensitive and adjust our reactions.”

Registration kicks off at 8 a.m. at the Rose Barn, near the boathouse parking lot. The cost is $25. There will be a children's fun run from 11 to 11:30 a.m.

Proceeds once again benefit the Etna-based ABOARD's Autism Connection of PA, founded in 1996 to help children with the condition reach their maximum potential socially and intellectually. ABOARD stands for Advisory Board on Autism and Related Disorders.

In the first two years, the 5K has brought in more than $12,000.

“We're so grateful for the help,” said Marie Mambuca, a family-support coordinator for 14 years. “Autism is lifelong, so it's not like our services run out.”

The parent-run advocacy group is a place to turn to for guidance, Mambuca said. It provides a list of agencies that offer help to parents from the initial diagnosis through adulthood. Mambuca said the group counsels about 10,000 families, mostly in western Pennsylvania.

“We're here to give them education and support,” she said. “We suggest to them where to go for certain school issues or let them know about little-known services that are out there because I'll tell you, autism is scary for parents.

“We all sacrifice a lot for our child to grow up and get an education, get a job, be social and live as independently as they can.”

Burke, who worked in mental-health services while attending the Mercyhurst Northeast Police Academy, said he wanted proceeds from the race to remain local, and ABOARD's Autism Connection offers hands-on help to local parents.

This year's walk might outpace the previous two, Burke said. There are a record 450 registrations, and Burke is confident about reaching the goal of 500 by race day.

New this year will be guest speakers meant to inspire participants, including Mike Bruno of Cecil, who will walk blindfolded in honor of his daughter, who has autism and is blind. Aspinwall police officer Scott Bailey will share a DVD project he's working on to improve police interactions with autistic children.

“It's different for someone who understands autism to speak to the runners and explain what it feels like,” said Burke, adding that his work with children with autism has improved his level of patience and has made his reactions on crime seems more appropriate.

“One of the toughest things is for people to understand why autistic kids act the way they do or why they are having an outburst,” Burke said. “We want to reach out and help people understand, and then, maybe, they will react differently to them.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2 or tpanizzi@tribweb.com.

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