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Warriors celebrate autism acceptance

Event raises funds for programs, resources

CANFIELD — Ryland Koch, 8, is academically advanced, and he also knows how to advance quickly along a track — to the tune of taking home a first-place medal.

“He didn’t communicate very well until he was in his late 3s. He was very socially distant, and his sensory issues were pretty astronomical,” Ryland’s mother, Brittney Koch, said about her son, who is on the autism spectrum and had a variety of sensory processing challenges.

The boy’s latest challenge, however, was finishing first in a 400-meter Kids Fun Run, which was among the events that made up the third annual Mahoning Valley Warrior competition Saturday at the Canfield Fairgrounds.

Hosting the fundraiser was the Canfield-based Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley.

Ryland was hypersensitive mainly to certain sounds, scents and having others in his personal space — something that often led to acting-out behaviors, his mother said. Brittney added that her son hopes to become an oceanic archaeologist.

Ryland listed playing video games and watching Harry Potter movies as his favorite activities; his top sports are wrestling, track, football, baseball and martial arts, said Ryland, who also was accompanied at the warriors competition by his father, Chuck Koch, and sister, Reghan, 12.

The fundraiser’s underlying thrust was to celebrate and foster greater acceptance of those on the spectrum and their families. A goal was to bring in at least $25,000 to go toward the ASMV’s programs and resources to help others “navigate the world of autism,” Robin Suzelis, the organization’s director, noted.

The ASMV also hosts monthly social events that include bowling and movie outings in an effort to allow those on the spectrum to get to know one another and foster friendships, she explained.

The warrior competition consisted largely of a 5K run, two strongman events and a tractor-pull challenge. The 2022 male and female winners were Austin Dodrill of Warren and Brooke Ghilani of Alliance.

Among those who put their upper body muscles to the test were Hannah Mowery, a teacher and early-intervention specialist who has worked with people on the spectrum, and Steven Hokky of Watertown, N.Y., a U.S. Army medic who attempted to lift a 205-pound barbell.

“They are resilient and can overcome a lot,” Mowery, of Canfield, said, referring to those on the autism spectrum. “They’re able to do anything.”

For her part, Mowery lifted 115 pounds of weight over her head.

Doing things a bit more horizontally than vertically was John Crogan of Boardman, who tested his physical metal via participating in the tractor-pull event. His secret? Just keep moving forward and don’t look back.

“I just kept the momentum flowing,” said Crogan, who also wanted to support the ASMV.

In addition, several local agencies showed their support, including Help Network of Northeast Ohio, the Rich Center for Autism, Proactive Behavior Services, Valley Christian School, the Early Childhood Resource Center and The Workshops Inc., which just opened in Mineral Ridge and provides vocational training as well as adult day service programming.

Also offering an array of information was Ryan Pastore, president and co-owner of Boardman-based ABA Therapy Solutions.

ABA (applied behavior analysis) is designed largely to help those on the spectrum increase communication skills and desired behaviors while decreasing undesirable ones, as well as to “help kids live their best life, whatever that means to them,” Pastore explained.

ABA Therapy Solutions, which also has a day program, uses research- and evidence-based practices to help children, especially age 2 to 14, with their communication, sensory and social skills, he said.

Also attending the competition was Christopher Banks, president and chief executive officer of the Rockville, Md.-based Autism Society of America.

“I came to support the tremendous work the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley does in the Valley for the autism community,” he said, adding that the Warriors competition also was an opportunity to celebrate the agency’s work and community support.

Banks noted that the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that about one in 44 U.S. births results in an autism diagnosis. To put that figure in perspective, if 110,000 fans attended an Ohio State Buckeyes football game, about 2,500 of them would be on the spectrum, he continued.

For more information about the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley, go to www.autismmv.org., or call 330-333-9609.

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