Benefit brings awareness, music, and smiles

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First Posted: 5/6/2013

Growing up with Alex opened Michelle Eckert’s eyes to autism and all the things that make people like him special, but it also made her conscious of how little awareness there was in the area.

“It became very clear to me how important awareness is, but also how vital acceptance is. If more people were aware and would accept people with autism, they would be able to see them how I do, and how their families do – not as ‘weird’ or ‘mentally ill,’ but as very special and often very delightful individuals with incredible potential,” the Scranton resident explained.

“My brother Alex will be 20 this year, but he still has the innocent, beautiful smile he did as a baby. His laugh is incredibly contagious. He loves watching guys play basketball in local parks and attempts to participate when they will let him.

“Alex is very handsome and has proven to be very intelligent in different ways over the years. He loves good music, often sharing in my taste, and ‘dances’ to his favorite songs. He is a lot to handle but is a wonderful person whom people just adore when they are willing to spend time with him. Those who are willing to give Alex a chance very quickly come to adore him like our mom and I do.”

Eckert said Alex is non-verbal, but has spoken full sentences in the past when he participated in a trial of Secretin, though the drug is not yet FDA-approved. He mostly uses sign language to communicate, and their mother cares for him, “fighting for better education and services,” as she notes many parents do.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that all people with autism are great with numbers, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie ‘Rain Man.’ That character was a high-functioning autistic, which we call having Asperger’s syndrome… What people need to understand is that it is called the autism ‘spectrum’ because there are so many levels of autism. As we say, ‘If you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child,’” Eckert emphasized.

“Awareness has come a long way and has a long way to go. I witness a lot of staring. People don’t understand what they’re seeing when they witness physical sensory indulgences such as ‘flapping’ arms or hands, or ‘rocking.’ Many assume people with autism are just mentally ill and aren’t aware of the big differences that exist between mental illness and autism. The most need for improvement is the education system. Alex, like many other children on the spectrum, has been bounced around to several different schools and special education classrooms.”

Four years ago, a friend suggested that she form a benefit to better educate the community and show support for those with autism and their families. The first Rock For Autism had six bands, and this year, there are 12, offering everything from acoustic duos to blues to punk to metal to classic rock.

“I happen to know many generous local musicians. Traditional fundraisers are great, but I feel that the way I do things reflects a bit of me and my friends. We all love good rock music, and we have a lot of fun this way. It encourages great people to get together and do something they already love doing with the added bonus of performing for a great cause,” Eckert said.

“I have raised around $500 each year through Rock For Autism. The benefit has grown every year, and I can only hope to do better each time. This idea started in a bar one night that my boyfriend, Jay Luke, was performing in. We know many local musicians, so it was easier than I expected to get started, but I do hope that I can expand this event in the future so that families with autism can bring their children to a large venue. I have many ideas for the future that I hope I can implement. I’d love to beat $500, but I’m grateful for every dollar I can raise.”

Scheduled for this Friday, May 10, at the Irish Wolf Pub (503 Linden St., Scranton), the all-night concert will benefit the Wilkes-Barre-based non-profit S.A.F.E. (Supporting Autism and Families Everywhere). Free food includes donations from Gerrity’s Supermarket, Weis Markets, Eden – A Vegan Cafe, Buona Pizza, and Vince the Pizza Prince. Drink specials include $1.30 Lionshead cans and $2 shots from 7 p.m.-midnight.

“S.A.F.E. is a great organization which organizes events, activities, trips, and offers many types of support for the local autism community. I have experienced their generosity firsthand, and I believe they create opportunities that these families may not otherwise have,” she emphasized.

“Many autistic children and their families, including mine, are often isolated; S.A.F.E. provides chances for these children and their families to be social. It is so important that these children and families with autism have the chance to interact with others experiencing the same issues and lifestyles.”

The best part of the evening for Eckert, though, is seeing her brother react to the music.

“We can’t know if Alex understands what it is all about, but he sure enjoys it. He gets right up in front of the stage to jump around and dance to the bands,” she said.

“It just makes my heart smile.”

For those who cannot attend but wish to donate, they can do so via Paypal at [email protected]