PITTSFIELD -- Ten years ago, a group of four local mothers of children with autism decided something needed to be done to support their growing community.

Robin MacPherson, Nancy Burt, Pamela Powell and Sheila Lepotakis had all received support for their children through Community Resources for People With Autism, but as more and more families were coming in to seek help, there were fewer and fewer funds available to go around.

MacPherson suggested the idea of a fundraiser. "She wanted to see what we could do to help," said Lepotakis.

They held a benefit dinner and raffle, and raised about $25,000.

This year, the group now known as the Berkshire Autism Project Committee for CRPA, will be hosting on Saturday, May 3, their 10th annual dinner dance and benefit.

Lepotakis and Powell said the need for local support for resources and awareness about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are critical.

Last month, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published its latest data and findings on the prevalence of ASD -- about 1 in 68 children are diagnosed within the CDC's study area, which focuses on a cross- section of 8-year-old children living in 11 communities across the country. In 2000 and 2002, the prevalence rate was 1 in 150. The CDC also reports that about 1 in 6 children living in the United States between 2006 and 2008 were diagnosed with some form of developmental disability, ranging from minor speech and language impairments, to more serious and challenging conditions, such as cerebral palsy and ASD.

Though prevalence varies by state and county, CRPA has seen an increase in the number of people it serves.

Powell, who is an autism specialist assistant for CRPA, said that in 2004, the organization was serving about 525 families in its network. Today, CRPA serves 1,600 families.

CRPA Director Jan Doody said the organization sees the increase "on a day to day basis. Each year we have between 100 and 120 families join our ranks.

"We're always advocating for more services," she said, noting that the organization serves Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, as well as northern Worcester County.

Doody said that the work of the Berkshire Autism Projects Committee is commendable: They've raised $274,000 to-date, all which has stayed in Berkshire County.

"They are a wonderful group of parents who volunteer their time and have done lots of different kinds of programs and events to give back to the families," she said.

CRPA provides programs for new parents, including support groups and referral services for specialists for their children; it offers an on-site resource centers in Pittsfield and Easthampton; provides advocacy for children before, during and after their school years; organizes education and training programs for people with autism, people who work to help people with and ASD diagnosis, and parents; and also host social, sensory and recreational activities.

For example, proceeds from the May dinner dance will go toward offering a bicycling camp for people with autism in August. The program brings specially designed "adaptive" bikes that aim to train students to learn how to ride a two-wheel bike independently by the end of the weeklong program.

Lepotakis, whose son with autism is now 25, through CRPA has been able to participate in a specialized horseback riding program, which has expanded his social and verbal skills. Powell, whose son is 18, has been able to learn to use apps on an iPad that better help him communicate with people, even if he can't vocalize his thoughts himself.

As their sons continue to grow into adulthood, the parents say its even more important for organizations like CRPA, and the government, to support programs that help people with an ASD diagnosis be productive citizens.

"There are not enough places to find jobs and places for these kids to go after age 22, where they can be happy, productive and learn how to build relationships with people and make friends," Lepotakis said.

Twenty-two is the age when students "age out" of eligibility to receive support services through public education systems.

Members of Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts (AFAM), will be at the Statehouse in Boston today for Autism Spectrum Awareness and Acceptance Day, during which "The Path to Successful Employment" will be the key theme.

To reach Jenn Smith:
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6239.
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink

If you go ...

What: 10th annual dinner dance fundraiser of the Berkshire Autism Projects Committee to benefit Community Resources for People with Autism.

When: Saturday, May 3.

Where: Crowne Plaza, 1 West St., Pittsfield.

Details: A VIP reception will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m., which includes a poolside cocktail hour with open bar and hors d'oeuvres; live jazz with the Jeff Link Trio; private auction and general auction preview; VIP seating, dinner and dancing. General admission (starts at 7 p.m.) includes a plated, served meal; general auction and raffles; entertainment and dancing with DJ Bob Heck Entertainment until midnight.

Tickets: There will be 100 VIP tickets sold at $100 per person; 300 general admission tickets are available at $50 per person. Tickets can be reserved by visiting communityresourcesforautism.org, or contacting Pamela Powell at (413) 443-4780, ext. 19 or pamela.powell@theassociationinc.org. Tables of 10 may also be reserved.