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Children’s meets fundraising goal
Community backs effort for device to detect autism
choa
Occupational therapist Lindsey Willis shows off some of the equipment in the sensory gym at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Forsyth. The local facility recently secured $250,000 from the community that will be used to buy an eye-tracking device that can test for autism in infants. - photo by Crystal Ledford

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Any family interested in taking part in Marcus Autism Center studies should call (404) 785-7600 or email marcusresearch@choa.org. More information can also be found at www.marcus.org/research.

Staff members of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Forsyth are celebrating.

The facility recently received confirmation that it had hit a fundraising goal of $250,000 by the close of 2013. The money will go to install a device that can provide early detection of autism.

“As always, we are overwhelmed by the generosity of the Forsyth County community,” said Beth Buursema, manager of community outreach.

Buursema said the final tallies took a few weeks to total and confirm through Children’s financial offices.

The funding will be used for one of several prototypes of the device developed by Ami Klin, director of the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, and his research team.

The device uses cameras that focus on a child’s eyes. Short videos and images are shown to the child. When his or her eyes move, the camera can tell what part of the scene the child is watching.

Most children focus on people’s eyes and faces, but according to the Marcus Autism Center, infants at risk for autism tend to focus on objects and movements more than typical babies.

With the funding in place for the device, Buursema said Children’s is looking for families of infants and young children to take part in autism studies.

Participants will have access to the device at no charge since it is part of research efforts.

“We’re thrilled to be able to offer this technology to our area families,” she said. “Studies have shown that the earlier a diagnosis of autism or an autism spectrum disorder can be made, leading to earlier interventions, the better chances the child has of developing more normally.”

According to information from the Marcus Autism Center, researchers using the eye-tracking device have been able to identify the earliest signs of autism observed in children as young as 2 to 6 months old. The average age of diagnosis in the United States is about 5 years old.

Buursema said an exact timeline for the device’s installation at Children’s at Forsyth has not been established, though it likely will be in place by late spring or early summer.

“But anyone interested in being a part of the study should plan to go ahead and sign up,” she said.

Fundraising efforts for the device began in early 2013 and received a big boost in October when Tommy and Chantal Bagwell, owners of American Proteins, volunteered to present a matching gift.

“At that point, we had raised around $100,000 and they said if the community could raise another $75,000 by the end of 2013, they would match that,” Buursema said. “Of course, that meant we would have the full $250,000 in place so that was huge.”

Besides the Bagwells, Buursema said the project received several other large donations from area businesses and many smaller ones from schools and civic groups.

One last push that allowed the project to meet the Bagwells’ Dec. 31 goal came from Mark and Layla Gunn, owners of several Melting Pot Restaurants around north metro Atlanta, Buursema said.

The couple, who reside near the Forsyth-North Fulton line, presented a $75,000 donation to Children’s with $30,000 earmarked for the Forsyth autism device.

While thankful for large donations such as those from the Bagwells and Gunns, Buursema said Children’s leaders are just as grateful for smaller sums because they all add up. 

“This was just another great example of team work in our community,” she said. “I was just in awe the month of December with all of the people who did small things to help out.

“We had people who purchased books at Barnes and Noble [with a percentage going to this project], schools that did things like sell paper snowballs … it was just incredible and continues to remind me of what a generous community we live in.”