Originally created 04/08/01

Bikers hit road to help autistic



AIKEN - Before last year, the only thing biker T. Wayne Johnson knew about autism was the bizarre actions of Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rain Man.

That has changed in the past two years as he has hopped on his red-and-white Kawasaki and joined dozens of other bikers in the Children's Autism Awareness Ride, a fun and educational trip that raises money for the South Carolina Autism Society. On Saturday, 85 riders traveled from Aiken to Irmo, raising both awareness and funds.

"I am so glad I am able to help," he said Saturday after the ride that raised $1,855. "There is no way I can go out and try to find a cure for this thing. I do know there is research being done on it."

Autism develops in children younger than 3 and is characterized by unresponsiveness to human contact and deficits in language development. The South Carolina Autism Society, a Columbia-based organization, provides information and referral services for parents of autistic children, organizes support groups and lobbies for legislation to improve the lives of those with autism.

April is Autism Awareness Month, and riders from throughout the Aiken-Augusta area participated in the second annual ride, doubling last year's participation and money raised. The group passed around a shopping bag and collected the money, with Aiken Motorcycle Sales matching the amount.

With escorts from sheriff's deputies, the group snaked along the highway and made their way to Irmo, where motorcycles were lined up several rows deep by noon. At Dutch Fork Christian Church, the riders held a cookout, socialized and learned more about autism.

The event was conceived a few years ago by Don and Esther Hill of Barnwell, avid motorcycle riders and parents of an autistic boy.

They mentioned the idea to the managers at Aiken Motorcycle Sales and to members of ABATE of Aiken County, a motorcycle rights group, and the charity ride finally took shape last year with about 50 participants.

"You'll find that motorcycle people are probably the greatest givers, not only of their time and energy but also their money," Mrs. Hill said Saturday.

Already, members of ABATE sponsor charity events that assist needy children at Christmas and provide funds for Helping Hands of Aiken County. The autism event is another way for the group to improve the image of motorcycle riders, Mr. Johnson said.

"We try to improve and give a positive image to the bikers. We're not all Hell's Angels, and we're not all bad guys," he said.

Bikers from several local groups participated in Saturday's event, including the Christian Motorcycle Association and ABATE of Augusta. Organizers hope to build the event in the coming years, incorporating motorcycle clubs from throughout the state.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 648-1395.