Middle-school dance marathon generates yearly donations to CWRU autism research and education

For the last five years, students at Eastlake Middle School, about 20 miles northeast of Cleveland, spend half a Saturday in April on their feet.

All 12 hours. From noon to midnight. Even eating meals while standing on the gym floor.

And it’s all to raise awareness and research dollars for autism, including annual contributions to the International Center for Autism Research (ICARE) at Case Western Reserve University and Share A Vision, a charity that provides outdoor recreational activities to children with autism.

The fifth annual Eastlake Middle School Awareness Dance for Autism, known as “NESS 2014” (short for awareness), on Saturday, April 5, raised $10,000, pushing the five-year total to more than $35,000.

Deputy Provost Lynn Singer accepts the donation from Eastlake Middle School students.

“We are so fortunate that Eastlake Middle School found ICARE on the CWRU website,” said Lynn Singer, deputy  provost and vice president for academic affairs and chair of the ICARE Steering Committee, who attended the event to personally thank students and their parents and school advisers for such a meaningful gift.

“To date,” Singer said, “their donations have supported the research of Dr. David Katz, professor of neuroscience, who is focused on developing new molecular therapies for autism spectrum disorders.”

About 185 middle-school dancers and 12 former high school students participated this year, according to event adviser Jillian Forcht, a computer technology teacher at the Lake County school. To participate, each student raised at least $60 in sponsorships.

Adapted from Penn State’s “Thon,” which raises money annually to fight pediatric cancer, “Ness” was launched in 2010 to create awareness of the prevalence of autism, while raising money to help find a cure.

“This is because, in our building, we have an autistic unit,” Forcht said. “Our student body has become very aware of autism, and students will often spend their free time helping in the autism unit. Since our students encounter autism daily, it has become a passionate cause.”

“NESS” is one of countless events nationally in April to raise awareness for a disorder that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, has increased tenfold in just two decades.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 8-year-olds in the United States is affected by what medical researchers refer to as “autism spectrum disorder.”

The disorder, which affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills, usually surfaces by age 3. Although autism is traced to abnormalities in the brain, exact causes are unknown.