More children than ever are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, largely attributed to progress in early detection and greater understanding and awareness; and the question of where families should turn and what decisions they should make after the diagnosis is a universal dilemma.
A few months after Kim and Lenny Kerwin’s son Bennett was diagnosed with autism in November 2020 at 2 years old, Kim was scrolling Instagram when she came across a post about the Autism Hero Walk, an annual event benefiting the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM).
The Bloomfield Hills family was feeling somewhat isolated after the diagnosis (a feeling exacerbated by it happening during the COVID pandemic), as they didn’t really have any close friends or family who had gone through that process.
While realizing the walk could be an avenue to bring people together to rally around Bennett and his diagnosis, the Kerwin’s rapidly got involved with AAoM after learning how much the organization has to offer as a multifaceted community resource.
From being completely unaware of AAoM to “falling into it backwards,” the Kerwins created a fundraising team in Bennett’s name starting with the 2021 walk and have gone above and beyond for AAoM ever since.
“I would be very comfortable to say that Lenny and Kim have brought in close to $100,000 to the organization in just two years,” said Marc Berke, AAoM’s chief development officer. “And we’re not yet counting this year, they just started.”
Kim Kerwin said, “We really blew it out of the water majorly. We weren’t expecting to raise what we raised that first year. We caught their attention, and the rest is history.”
Berke and AAoM indeed took notice of the Kerwins’ 2021 fundraising efforts and connected with them soon after.
Berke then began the process of putting together a committee for the walk to help with sponsorship, fundraising and awareness. That process quickly included Kim, who agreed to chair the committee. The walk has grown ever since, helped by unbelievable sponsorship from the community.
The Autism Hero Walk sees around 5,000 families affected by autism gather at the Detroit Zoo for a fun, uplifting day celebrating those with autism — everyday superheroes. This year’s walk takes place Sept. 23.
Navigating the Road Ahead
At the centerpiece of AAoM is MiNavigator, created to provide free professional consultation to individuals and families across Michigan affected by autism. MiNavigator is staffed by a team of professionals with expertise in various areas of the autism world, including the clinical, educational, insurance, vocational, public safety, policy and legal fields.
AAoM and MiNavigator help families figure out everything from insurance issues and what coverage they might have for therapies, to helping find the right doctors and schools, all the way through helping place autistic individuals in good-paying jobs.
No matter the question, the navigator becomes a resource to families and individuals seeking assistance.
“You can call any of them and they’ll say, ‘Here’s who you talk to about a trust, here’s who you talk to about an Individualized Education Program, here’s who you talk to about employment,’” Lenny Kerwin explained. “They will point you in the right direction and navigate you through the entire process.”
According to Berke, AAoM is a resource for the entire Michigan community “along the entire lifespan, from diagnosis through employment and independent living, not just for the individual but for the family,” he said. “That’s really important, because every single family is going to be different and have their own unique challenges.”
Kim and Berke have talked about trying to get the Jewish community more involved and making sure they know AAoM is available as a resource for them, as well.
While the money raised goes a long way, Kim has turned into a resource of her own — something she says has given her an additional sense of purpose.
“I’ve had a couple phone calls from fellow Jewish mamas whose kids have recently been diagnosed, and it’s really nice to be one of their first phone calls,”
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you get the diagnosis. It’s like, where do you turn? What do you do? There’s a lot. And I always say, first and foremost, go check out the Autism Alliance of Michigan, because they’re a great resource and a phenomenal organization.”