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Friday, June 18, 2010
Updated: June 23, 12:00 AM ET
A perfect fit

By Chris Nieratko
ESPN Action Sports

Skateboarding saves lives. That statement has been repeated millions of times because it's plain and it's true. Whether it serves as an escape from a life of drugs and violence, a sanctuary from a rough home life or a means of overcoming poverty, skateboarding has a way of making people's lives better.

And the most beautiful thing about people who discover skateboarding? They pay it forward. I can think of dozens of examples of skaters giving back. To name a few: There's the Skatepark of Tampa's Boards For Bros program giving underprivileged kids skateboards, Etnies donating thousands of shoes to downtown L.A. homeless and Deluxe Distribution donating proceeds from decks designed for special causes in their Actions REALized series.

15-year-old Justin gets his first taste of skateboarding through A.Skate.

One cause that Deluxe has recently championed is treatment for autism. Last year, Deluxe's Jim Thiebaud teamed up with longtime Eastern Skateboard Supply sales representative, John Pike. "When it becomes personal is when I get drawn in," said Deluxe's Brand Manager, Jim Thiebaud. It got personal real quick.

Pike is 41, and he's been skating for 30 years. His son, Gianni, 7, has autism. "He wasn't developing like a typical kid; he wasn't speaking when he was diagnosed at age 2," Pike said. "We had a pediatrician that didn't blow us off. A lot of pediatricians will be like, 'He's a boy, and he's just developing late. Don't worry about it.' She put up a red flag and got the help we needed."

"Speaking with Pike about his son a year or so ago really gave me a sense of what kids with autism go through, and lending a hand was easy," Thiebaud said. Real issued an Action's REAlized deck for autism and sold over 1,000 of them, raising $9,000 for Autism Speaks, a non-profit dedicated to autism awareness and fundraising for research into the causes, prevention, treatment and eventual cure.

For as many skateboarders as there are in the world, our community is quite small. The world got a little smaller when Pike found out that the girlfriend of Faith Skate Supply owner Peter Karvonen has a 7-year-old daughter with autism named Sasha. Pike has been Karvonen's sales rep for 14 years now. Since both have a connection to autism, it began to click together. Before long, Karvonen's girlfriend -- Chrys Worley -- and Pike had teamed to form the non-profit 501c3 organization, A.Skate, dedicated to raising awareness about autism in the skateboard community.

A.Skate co-founder Chrys Worley works with autistic kids at an A.Skate event.

Autism, as defined by Autism Speaks, is "a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD)." Basically, it's like a switch is flipped in the brain and suddenly the child is unable to develop or communicate in a traditional way. The statistics on autism are staggering:

  • 1 out of 70 boys is diagnosed with autism.

  • 1 out of 101 children is diagnosed with autism.

  • It's more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS, combined.

    It's an growing problem. No one knows what causes it. And, there's no cure or real explanation for why kids have autism yet. It's a mystery.

    The goal of A.Skate is no mystery, though: teach kids with autism to skateboard and teach awareness to a demographic that might not otherwise know about autism. It is believed skateboarding and board sports are a good fit for autistic kids because they are not social creatures. "The reason autism and skateboarding fit is you don't need a coach or a team," Pike explains. "You can skateboard on your own. What's great about skaters is that they're an eclectic group of people that are accepting of all different demographics of people. Our kids are different, and we know they will be accepted into this society and they'll have fun."

    It's been proven hundreds of times over with every skate clinic A.Skate offers along the Eastern seaboard. "Peter put Sasha on a board one day and it just worked. She was instantly happy," Worley remembers. Ever since, Worley has been getting autistic kids together every weekend in places all over the Southeast. A.Skate clinics give kids a chance to try skateboarding out. The sounds and feel of a skateboard calm many of them and they're drawn to it. Most kids are first-timers and just sit down and cruise on their butts but the joy is evident at all stages.

    Worley boasts A.Skate's success rate.

    "We have yet to have even one child that doesn't respond well to the clinics," she said. "Hundreds of kids ... and every one of them has had a positive experience. There is one tiny child in the Veteran's Park video that Peter was skating with and [the child] was talking up a storm. At the end of the video you can hear him saying, "Again! Again!" His mom told us he hadn't spoken in five months prior to that. It is therapeutic for them. I wouldn't know the child had little to no language if his mom hadn't told me because he didn't stop talking the whole time Peter was working with him."

    John Pike works with an autistic first-time skater at an A.Skate event in Knoxville, Tennesse.

    It says a lot about the mettle of these two parents to give so much of themselves for the happiness of kids across the country. I learned from talking to them that many insurance companies do not cover a penny for autism treatment. "I've almost gone bankrupt and re-mortgaged my house three times," Worley said. "Insurance hasn't helped with one thing."

    "All of the money most families have with kids on the spectrum is spent out of their pocket for therapy. So buying a skateboard is not in their budget," Pike said. To combat this obstacle, A.Skate is trying to create a grant program in which, if the child wants to continue to skate, the foundation can write a check to the local skateshop for that child to get a quality board. "One of our big things is supporting the skate industry through the grants," Pike said. "The kid or the parent doesn't get the check, NJ Skateshop or Faith Skate Supply or wherever gets the check. My background is in skating and surfing so my way of dealing with [this condition] was to use my experience in this business to give back and help other people, along with me and my son."

    The coolest thing about A.Skate is the campaign they introduced Monday on Go Skateboarding Day. GSD is skateboarding's version of Valentine's Day, a "holiday" to remind people they love their spouse, or in this case, skateboarding. This year I looked forward to GSD thanks to A.Skate. Their Go Skateboarding Day Campaign was to literally grab a kid with autism and help them participate in skateboarding. No money involved, just a spare cruiser to let a kid push around on your board. Maybe these small acts will get a kid speaking that hasn't said a word in months.

    For more information go to:

    Askate.org

    Facebook.com/askatefoundation

    Autismspeaks.org

    Special Thanks to the supporters who have donated products so that A.Skate can hold clinics:

    Eastern Skate Supply, Deluxe Distribution, Skate One, S-One Helmets, Dwindle Distribution, Analog and Gravis.