“My grandson is an adorable little boy,” Kay Pyland says. The pride in her voice is practically palpable.

“But when he walks in the room, you can’t tell anything is wrong with him by just looking at him.”

That’s because Sam is autistic.

“Autistic kids don’t always look different, and when you look at my grandson, he looks just like any other 4-year-old boy,” says Pyland, who was raised in Preston Hollow, graduated from Hillcrest High School and recently moved back to the neighborhood.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning no two people are affected in the same way, so some children do show outward signs.

“Some of these children may never be toilet trained, and some may never learn to speak,” says Lisa Phillips of Autism Speaks, an organization that funds research for the disorder. “Some of these children will never be able to tell their parents they love them.”

Pyland’s grandson was diagnosed with autism two years ago. It’s a diagnosis, Phillips says, that is happening more often.

“Now doctors are realizing autism is more common than they thought, so it’s being diagnosed more,” she says.

Around 1 in 166 children born are diagnosed with the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In fact, more American children are diagnosed with autism than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined, according to the Autism Speaks website.

When Sam was diagnosed, Pyland knew virtually nothing about the disorder. He lives in Georgia with his parents, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to help in some way. In doing Internet research, she came across the Autism Speaks website, and is now an advocate for autism awareness. She volunteers with the organization, devoting much of her time to local community outreach.

“Autism is widespread, and there are families out there who don’t know how to deal with it and are overwhelmed by it,” she says with a twinge of sadness. “I want to let all these families know that we’re there for them. These families are so caught up with making it through the day that they don’t have the time to look beyond themselves for support.”

Pyland says this support can make a huge difference for a family coping with an autistic child.

“It’s unbelievable the amount of time, energy and expense that go into caring for someone with autism, and a lot of times these parents end up feeling isolated,” she says. “But once they realize they’re not alone, there’s this relief, and they’re just so grateful.”

Pyland is currently helping Autism Speaks organize its 2006 Fall Week for Autism Research, an annual fundraiser walk at Lone Star Park.

The walk will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 16. Participants can walk the 2.2-mile route alone, with a team or just make donations. There will also be a resource fair with information from vendors and service providers for those with autism and other special needs. And there will be plenty of hands-on activities for kids, including clowns, mascots, face painters, balloon artists, food and live music. The event is free.

Pyland says aside from raising funds, the walk helps families affected by autism find the support they need.

“This is a time for parents to connect with resources and to just be around other parents who are dealing with the same issues,” she says. “This is a chance for them to not feel so alone.”

But above all, Pyland says, the walk is really just a chance for autistic kids to be kids.

“Just because they have autism doesn’t mean they’re not still kids. Sometimes these kids will smile, and you see a glimpse of that little person trapped inside that shell and it just makes you melt.”

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