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Good to get the blues

Lights shine in Bethlehem for autism awareness

The Bethlehem Town Hall and other spots along Main Street are glowing in blue light each evening this month. Jose and Casey Bonilla, who orchestrated the event, hope to expand the Light It Up Blue project even farther. Darin Wipperman/Littleton Courier. (click for larger version)
April 16, 2014
BETHLEHEM— Parents Jose and Casey Bonilla, who have a son with autism, are on a mission. Started last year, the couple is expanding their effort to illuminate the town's Main Street with blue lights, the color of autism awareness.

The complex medical conditions called autism, which affect brain development, are known collectively as autism spectrum disorder. Children diagnosed with autism have varying degrees of problems with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors.

According to published data, autism, which disproportionately affects boys, occurs in one of every 68 children. Casey noted that recent research has found that neurological disruptions that have been linked to autism occur in the womb.

Working with the town and area businesses, the Bonillas have placed blue lights along Main Street. The town hall, Colonial Theatre, Larcom Studios, and others spots bask in the blue light each evening this month.

The Bonillas first thought about launching their quiet revolution for autism awareness after seeing a slideshow of photographs. The pictures displayed several major world landmarks glowing blue for the cause.

Last year, Maia Papaya was the first location to start the blue lights in Bethlehem, Jose said. Casey said no one they talked to since has hesitated to become part of what is called the Light It Up Blue campaign. Jose added, "People went out of their way. They know how important this is."

The Bonillas have worked with area schools on autism awareness. The message has been, as Jose said, "Be a friend, still say 'hi'."

Some children may find it hard to get to know someone with autism, the Bonillas said. As Casey put it, a child with autism can feel "somewhat trapped, but very much like someone else."

Children have responded favorably to Jose's school outreach. The students have learned, Casey noted, that those with autism are "different, but not less."

Awareness, early intervention, and acceptance are the goals of Autism Awareness Month. The lights serve as a way to show support for the cause, and the Bonillas are thrilled with the response so far. They intend to expand the effort to Littleton and beyond.

Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart helped with bulb and supply donations, the Bonillas said. The Bonillas are also thankful for Unified Sports efforts at area schools, which pair children with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. Littleton, as well as a Profile/Lin-Wood partnership, participates in Unified Sports, affiliated with the Special Olympics.

The Light It Up Blue campaign has an impressive reach. For 2013, Casey said 8,400 buildings and landmarks across seven continents were illuminated, with 1,300 cities in 101 countries participating. Casey said the International Space Station is another Light It Up Blue participant.

The United Nations has set April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day, which serves as the kickoff for Autism Awareness Month.

Through greater education and the help of others, the Bonillas believe the local Light It Up Blue campaign will be a great annual event in the area. With the continued expansion of the blue lights, Jose said, "Our goal is to eventually be seen from the air." Casey repeated this hope. "We want airlines to fly over New Hampshire and ask why we're so blue," she concluded.

Both Jose and Casey mentioned www.autismspeaks.org as a great resource for those looking for a range of information on autism.

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