Taking it to Targa

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Ray and Julie Halleran know the joys and trials of raising a child with autism. They plan to raise awareness, and funds, to fight the illness during this year's Targa Newfoundland.

Outside of her home in Paradise, six-year-old Alexis Halleran stands just inches from the side of her father Ray's bright blue and brand new 2010 Ford Mustang.

On Sept. 12, the car will take off as a part of the Targa Newfoundland road race, a test of her father's adventurous spirit.

Natasha (left) and Alexis Halleran love climbing into Dads new 2010 Ford Mustang. Photo by Ashley Fitzpatrick/The Telegram

Outside of her home in Paradise, six-year-old Alexis Halleran stands just inches from the side of her father Ray's bright blue and brand new 2010 Ford Mustang.

On Sept. 12, the car will take off as a part of the Targa Newfoundland road race, a test of her father's adventurous spirit.

The car was a Father's Day gift from Alexis, her four-year-old sister Natasha and their mother Julie.

Alexis loves being near her father's car, said her mother. She likes even more to sit inside it and to be driven around. Actually, once inside, Alexis can't physically leave the car without screaming, until she makes a least one trip around the block.

Alexis has autism and is far along the spectrum of the condition, said Julie Halleran. "She's non-verbal, she can't talk," the mom said Tuesday.

While Alexis' family has come to understand her condition well, it is still something the general public does not entirely grasp, she said.

This knowledge gap is why the Targa Newfoundland entry name for the bright blue Mustang will be "Racing For Autism."

Living with Autism

Julie said she loves her daughter, but she doesn't want the difficulties of having a child with autism - or of being a child with autism - to be glossed over.

"They're left out of so many things because they sometimes can't go to public places," said Halleran, who provided one acute example of an activity Alexis has been kept from.

"I've never taken her to another child's birthday party. She's been invited to all kinds," said Halleran, who explained Alexis' difficulties can be hard for other children to understand.

In particular, said Halleran, other children are sometimes upset by her daughter's stand-offishness, her inability to speak and - when she has a snap changes in mood - her tantrums. Some adults have trouble with these things as well, she said.

"One minute she can be so happy and the next minute ..."

Alexis will sometimes scream and she will have no idea why.

"Life with an autistic child changes every second and every single autistic child is different," said Halleran.

The young mother watched Alexis beside her father's car Tuesday evening. The six-year-old remained a breath away from the side of the car for several minutes, holding a "Diego" CD-ROM in one hand and touching the edges of puzzle-piece decals on the car with the other.

Raising awareness through Targa

The puzzle pieces are brightly coloured and hold the names of other children from Newfoundland and Labrador who have autism at one level or another.

"The symbol for autism is a puzzle piece," said Halleran, who spoke with the Autism Society of Newfoundlnd and Labrador about the Targa car. The society asked for names of anyone interested in the project and Halleran began collecting them several weeks ago.

"When we first started taking in names, the names were coming in very slowly," she said. That soon changed, said Halleran, and at last count there were 104 to be added.

In addition to the puzzle decals, the "Racing for Autism" team has created a website where photos sent to the family have been collected.

"The page has a slide show of 100 autistic children from Newfoundland and Labrador," Halleran said.

In addition to these items, families with and without connections to autism have been sending the team money, she said.

"We didn't need it ourselves, so we started raising money for the autism society."

The team has opened a bank account with Scotia Bank and is collecting on behalf of the autism society. "We've set a goal of $10,000 and we will definitely reach it," she said.

Racing the blue car

Alexis' father is away, working in Fort McMurray as a welding inspector, but is set to return Sept. 8, in time for the race.

Julie Halleran said her husband has been all for the team efforts to raise Autism awareness, especially considering the couple's own experiences and what they both see as a need for more programs in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"(Alexis) was 20 months old when we found out," she said. "We were living in Alberta at the time. When we came back we were finding it very difficult to get services for our daughter.

"Alberta definitely has a superior set of programming for their children," she added. "It would be really nice if we could somehow assist children with getting some of that kind of programming here."

As an example, Halleran said she and her husband tried for nine months to find a therapist to work with Alexis when the family moved home in the last year.

"We actively looked for a therapist here for nine months before I just gave up," she said, explaining it was impossible to find the help she needed.

As for the Targa race, Halleran said some friends have expressed their concerns for the adventurous Ray and his new Mustang.

"As soon as they see it they think he's insane, because it's such a beautiful car," she said.

Standing quietly beside the car on Tuesday, it seemed as though Alexis might agree, finally opening the door on her own and climbing inside - waiting for her trip around the block.

The Targa Newfoundland race is scheduled to begin Sept. 12 and will run until Sept. 19.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Autism Society of Newfoundlnd and Labrador, Scotia Bank

Geographic location: Targa, Paradise, Newfoundland and Labrador Alberta Fort McMurray

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