Rifle mom raises money for autism awareness

Ryan Hoffman
Aimee Sanders, left, and her son Jackson, 12, share a laugh at their Rifle home. The Sanders are raising money as part of the Light It Up Blue campaign in April, which is Autism Awareness Month.
Ryan Hoffman / Citizen Telegram |

There are boxes of blue-colored items in the Sanders’ home in west Rifle.

The jewelry, knick-knacks, signs and other things all are intended to bring awareness to, and a greater depth of knowledge about, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — a personal matter for the family of four.

About 10 years ago, Aimee and Brad Sanders’ son, Jackson, was diagnosed with ASD.

Aimee, who worked with an ASD child for three years as a severe-needs paraprofessional at Kathryn Senor Elementary School prior to Jackson’s birth, spotted the signs early.

Fast forward to present day and at the age of 12, with 13 right around the corner, Jackson, or Jack, is an affable youngster. He is the type of kid who offers a first-time visitor a glass of water, which he did earlier this week during a visit from The Citizen Telegram. When Brad, Jack’s father, arrived home after a long day of work, Jack approached him.

“Dad?” Jack asked.

“Yes, sir?” Brad replied.

“I have something to give you,” Jack said before extending his arms out to hug his father.

The exchange is indicative of Jack’s personality. Aimee, his mother, recalled an instance last summer when Jack ran out of the house with $5. The ice cream truck was outside.

A couple of minutes later, Jack came back inside the house empty handed, opting instead to buy ice cream for the neighborhood kids.

“He’ll do anything for anybody to make them happy,” she said.

Jack, like any child on the verge of entering teenage years, can be a handful. And there are aspects that stem from his diagnosis, such as speaking at loud volumes while in close proximity and his habitat of being repetitive when he speaks, that are noticeable.

However, one of the more aggravating ASD-related hurdles does not come from Jack; it comes from others.

The best thing people can do, says Aimee, is ask questions. On the other hand, advice, especially when it comes from somebody without an autistic or disabled child, is a less desirable response.

“I always, always encourage questions,” Aimee said. “I do not appreciate your unsolicited advice and what you know about autism … I get that a lot.”

Recently, that unsolicited advice included rubbing marijuana oil all over Jack’s body to “cure him.”

“‘I just met you,’” Aimee recalled saying to the woman, “‘so I want to be really clear, I just don’t like it when people tell me what I should do because I’ve been doing this a long time. And if you haven’t been a parent of a child with a disability or even a parent’ … she just kept going and I had to walk away.”


How people react explains — or at least partially explains — all of the blue items in the Sanderses’ home. Blue has become the official color for autism awareness and April 2 is the international Autism Awareness Day, also know as “Light It Up Blue” day, which serves as a kickoff for Autism Awareness Month in April.

In the past, Aimee has purchased blue-colored items as gifts to send to family members, friends and teachers who were especially understanding and kind toward Jack. That includes the staff at Graham Mesa Elementary, where Jack attended before moving on to middle school.

At about this time last year, Aimee was taking a photo of Graham Mesa teachers and staff members who dressed in blue to show their support. That was when Aimee decided she wanted to do more the following year.

Now, the family, including Christopher, Jack’s younger brother, and Lavonda Sanders, Brad’s sister, is raising money to participate in the Autism Speaks Walk in Denver on May 7. Proceeds go to Autism Speaks, a global science and advocacy organization that, according to its website, is “dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.”

The family drew its team name, the Minecraft Slayers, from the popular video game Minecraft — the only computerized console game in the house. With this being the family’s first fundraising effort, Aimee said they set a conservative goal of $2,000. But, she added, they hope to “blow that out of the water.”

As of Tuesday the team had raised $925, and Aimee is just now really starting to get the word out.

However, local support in forms other than cash donations has already been put forward. Businesses have given gift certificates, which Aimee intends to use, along with the blue-colored items, some of which also have been donated, to thank contributors. The generosity from strangers, during what Aimee says are difficult economic times, is a reminder of the giving nature of the area.

“We live in the best town there is,” Brad said. “That’s why we’re here. These people are so kind and decent, and it’s not just this. … If you’re broke down or anything goes wrong you can depend on kindness here.”

The identifiable prevalence of ASD has spiked dramatically, from about 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 68 children in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With those numbers and greater attention paid to ASD, Aimee said there is a broader understanding about the disorder than there was 10 or 20 years ago.

However, while more people have likely heard of or met somebody with ASD, Aimee believes people tend to think too narrowly and forget that the disorder is a spectrum.

ASD is a developmental disorder that can lead to social, communication and behavioral challenges, although the degree varies, the CDC reports. It includes autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified and Asperger’s syndrome — all of which were separately diagnosed at one point in time.

As an effort to further educate, Aimee said she plans on including facts with each gift she sends out. While a lack of knowledge can be frustrating, unwarranted sympathy can be equally difficult to deal with.

Aimee was telling Jack’s story — how he was diagnosed and the signs she recognized — to another woman last week.

“And I got done and she said ‘I’m so sorry for you — so sorry you had to go through that.’ And I just went, ‘Well I’m not. I wouldn’t change a thing,’” Aimee said in recalling the situation. “(Jack) is who we all should be. Honestly his attitude, he just … I wouldn’t change a thing. He makes me a better person, and he makes other people (better) too.”

To contribute to the Sanders team in the Autism Speaks Walk, visit

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