For nearly 14 years now, Pastor Mary Overstreet has looked after her great-grandson Sir J. Millage. For the last few years, she and members of Powerhouse Temple church have been looking after a lot more people just like Millage – people who live with one of the disorders on the autism spectrum.
Overstreet, founder of Powerhouse Temple and North by Northeast Community Health Center, is currently trying to fill a largely unmet need – to provide the community with a drop off center for children with autism. She says Powerhouse Temple is providing temporary space for a number of such children, so parents can go run errands or simply enjoy a few hours of rest. But by the end of the year, Overstreet hopes to have a separate facility up and running for the ever-increasing number of children and adults with autism.
"We're working really hard to make that possible," she said.
Starting at 10 a.m. this Saturday, July 5, Powerhouse Temple will be holding an event supporting the Sir J Millage Autistic Center for Change at Dawson Park. The fund-raiser is open to everybody and there will be free food and a walk-a-thon to help raise money for the anticipated day center. The event coincides with the church's annual picnic. The church will also be selling "finger licking good" sweet potato pie.
Some of the families who use Powerhouse Temple's services now don't belong to the church. Overstreet says she just wants to provide a free place to assist people with autism – many of whom require constant supervision. Overstreet says she provides computers, games, safe spaces and other activities to try and stimulate and comfort the people with autism who come to the church.
The spectrum of behaviors, cognitive functions and functionality of people with autism is vast – many people believe that Bill Gates has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Others, such as Overstreet's great-grandson, Sir Millage, function on the level of a 2- to 3-year-old. In December 2006, Millage was shot with a Taser multiple times by police for failing to follow their commands. Millage was incapable of understanding what police were asking of him as he wandered down the Broadway Bridge during the early morning hours. He had escaped from a window at his great-grandmother's house.
Autism has become increasingly common in the United States, and has seen an increase in Oregon of 800 percent since 1993, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 1 in 166 children are affected by the disorder. While research is ongoing, it is still unknown what causes a child to develop the symptoms of autism. Some researchers suggest genetics plays a role, while others purport a relation between certain environmental factors and food allergies to be the culprits. It was long rumored that mercury preservatives in vaccinations caused the disorder, but recent studies by the CDC and other major health organizations have largely debunked that causal relationship. But other possible causes include everything from too much television to excessive cleanliness to lack of sunlight. Most of these hypotheses do not have enough research to back up their claims.