AUSTINTOWN — Noah Gonzalez relishes racing his toy cars, though he didn’t hesitate to run a quick race of his own to meet a special guest.
“He loves cars and any type of sensory fidgets. He gets overstimulated easily,” his mother, Megan Pingley of Struthers, observed.
Noah, 9, who received an autism diagnosis at the Knapp Center for Childhood Development in Boardman when he was 3, also loved seeing Santa Claus, who made an early Christmas appearance at Austintown Township Park on Sunday as the guest of honor for the ninth annual Holiday Autism Family Gift Presentation and pizza party.
Hosting the 90-minute funfest was the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley, which presented this year’s Mike Hull Memorial Family mini grants to 23 families in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.
Pingley, who is a Struthers city councilwoman, recalled that her son was speech-delayed and was drawn to fastidiously lining up his toys — two characteristics for many on the spectrum. Noah, who received speech therapy, also is outgoing with “a very good heart,” she said.
Santa Claus distributed the gifts from funds the Mike Hull Benefit for Autism raised via an annual motorcycle run the nonprofit organization has the third Saturday in June, along with other events it hosts, noted its president, Melissa Kalaman, whose 39-year-old son, Nicholas Bevilacqua, received an autism diagnosis at age 9.
When he was about age 18 months, her son stopped making eye contact and speaking; he also started continually flapping his hands, Kalaman recalled.
The organization is named in honor of the late Hull, who was Kalaman’s brother and had a granddaughter on the autism spectrum. Hull also played the bass and sang in a band called Still Smokin’.
The Mike Hull Benefit for Autism’s primary mission is to raise money to provide for families in the tri-county region who have someone with autism with a variety of items designed for their comfort and other needs, she said. The Hull fund also helps the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley set up summer camps for children on the spectrum, Kalaman explained.
To apply for the gifts, most of which are to fulfill their sensory, academic and fitness needs, parents complete an online application stating the child’s specific needs. Then the Hull organization sorts through the list and buys gifts with funds it’s raised, Robin Suzelis, the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley’s director, noted.
Gifts typically include electronic tablets, weighted blankets, trampolines and special sensory lamps, said Suzelis, whose sons, 13 and 16, are on the autism spectrum.
This year, about twice as many children and adults on the spectrum received gifts from the Mike Hull organization, which is made up of “super generous people who wanted to give more this year,” she continued.
Also happy to take home early Christmas gifts Sunday were Austin Krupa, 18, of Warren, and Jacob Campbell, 9, of Austintown. Jacob was the recipient of a 7-foot trampoline.
“He wasn’t talking or walking, and he was speech-delayed,” Christina Campbell said about her son. “Everything had to be organized with him.”
The trampoline aligns with fulfilling therapy exercises Jacob receives from Easter Seals of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana Counties, which suggested the idea, Campbell explained.
Krupa’s mother, Brenda Streitferdt of Warren, suspected her son may have autism largely because he had a strong propensity for flapping his hands, consistently rocking back and forth and carefully lining up various items, she remembered.
Krupa, who was diagnosed around age 12 and whose mother described him as kind, loving and neat, also is able to recite lines from the Barney cartoon program in five languages — all of which he learned via YouTube, Streitferdt said.
For his part, Krupa also will be graduating in May 2023 from Champion High School. Afterward, he plans to enter the job market and use a variety of job skills he’s learning, she added.
To make a donation to the Mike Hull Benefit for Autism organization, email Kalaman at firstname.lastname@example.org.