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Dimitra Pesiridis, 15, a student at the Birchtree Center in Newington, walks on the treadmill with encouragement from instructor Charlotte Backhaus at the Seacoast Sports Clubs' downtown location in Portsmouth. (COURTESY)

Moving to overcome autism

Statewide events for Autism Awareness

Autism Awareness Month events across the state include:

April 10: Birchtree Center in Newington* will host a workshop titled “Using Visual Supports as Tools in the Home,” which will help teach caregivers how to use visuals with their children to improve behavior and participation in home- and community-based routines and activities.

April 12: Birchtree Center* will host a workshop titled “Teaching Self-Help Skills,” which will teach caregivers the fundamentals of teaching self-help and daily living skills to their children.

April 12: Autism Speaks Zumba-thon fundraiser from 6-8 p.m. at Epping Elementary School. There is a $10 donation for entry and Zumba.

April 12: From 3:30-5 p.m., the Children's Museum of New Hampshire in Dover will host an exhibit opening for artwork created by students at the Monarch School, which serves children with various special needs, including autism.

April 24: From 5:30-7:30 p.m., the Children's Museum will host a session for families living with autism called “Exploring Our Way.” During the event, the museum and Easter Seals New Hampshire will offer free 911 registration for children with autism, so families can notify local first responders about their children's special needs.

* Official registration for the Birchtree workshops has passed, but a few spots remain. Parents can register by calling 433-4192.

Complimentary child care is available on site by reservation.

NEWINGTON - Movement and physical fitness are important aspects of education for students at the Birchtree Center.

The nonprofit organization operates a special-educational day-school program for students with autism. The staff sees daily how even a short walk on the treadmill can help focus a student's attention.

So when the staff started brainstorming ways to raise funds for their families in need, a fitness challenge seemed like a good match.

This month, the center has partnered with Seacoast Sports Clubs to help promote its 'Miles in Our Shoes: A Fitness Challenge' for autism awareness.

April is Autism Awareness Month nationwide, and additional awareness events are planned throughout the state.

The Miles in Our Shoes fundraiser encourages staff, families and supporters of Birchtree to raise money for its Family Support Fund through exercise - walking on a treadmill, biking through the woods, or running around the neighborhood.

Birchtree's Family Support Fund will benefit families in need living with autism by underwriting admission-free autism workshops for families as well as essential educational expenses.

Jessica Files Squier, Birchtree's director of development and community relations, said necessary expenses not covered by tuition fees can include extra clothing for students, food for cooking lessons, and hygiene supplies, which get more expensive as students get older.

Birchtree is offering its first workshop for families with autism on Tuesday.

Movement matters

As the staff started brainstorming ways to raise funds for these needs, they considered a road race, but realized such an event would pose many sensory challenges for students with autism and would be problematic for many of their families.

But they knew the importance of movement.

Since moving from cramped quarters in Portsmouth to larger space in Newington two years ago, the center has been able to expand physical fitness opportunities in house, and a relationship with Seacoast Sports Clubs has allowed students to get acclimated to a public gym, as well.

Older students are able to exercise at the club once a week, and all students can use the pool at the club's Greenleaf Avenue site.

'To have a gym be so welcoming of our students, and sometimes the complications that come when we go out in public, helps (the students) participate in the community better,' said Sandra Pierce-Jordan, Birchtree Center's acting executive director.

It also means a lot to families.

Bob Gross of Sanford, Maine, said there aren't too many activities he and his son Steven, 13, can do together, but they are now able to go to a gym near home together once a week.

'Like most kids, he would still rather play on a computer, but just the fact that he participates with us in various activities was a huge change,' Gross said.

Although it is still difficult for Steven to play outside in his own back yard, where the allure of indoor attractions can be strong, Gross said he brings big bags of play equipment to area parks, and Steven loves it.

'It's very pleasing because there are not a lot of things we've been able to do in the past, so it's a good thing,' Gross said.

The Birchtree students have set a goal to log 400 miles of exercise this month during the fitness challenge, and people can pledge to the entire team at Birchtree's website. Staff members are also participating, and collecting pledges from family and friends.

Squier said she is wearing her pedometer all the time, and her dog has been pleased with the additional early morning walks they've taken since the first of the month.

Since April 1, Pierce-Jordan has been getting up at 5:45 a.m. to hit the road running. Her goal is to run 100 miles this month.

The overall goal is to raise $15,000 for the Family Support Fund.

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