Fishing for Autism Awareness

As do many fathers, ELI DELANY dreams of fishing bass tournaments one day with his son.

 But his child faces more challenges than most. He loves fishing. He loves riding in his father's boat. But he also has autism.
"Luke is loving and caring. He's a happy, adorable 7-year-old, and he's making great strides," the elder Delany says. "But he struggles with affection, attention and focus. Just getting him dressed can be difficult."
And Luke is not alone. Since Delany's son was diagnosed five years ago, the Massachusetts angler has learned that autism is a disease of epidemic proportions.
"One in every 150 kids is affected, and the number is growing," Delany says. "That means if you have two children, the odds are 1 in 75 that your family will be affected.
"Autism awareness hasn't been nearly as well promoted as cancer awareness," he continues. "And no one in the marine and fishing industry is doing anything about it."
Until now.
In late 2006, Delany wrapped his new Stroker boat powered by a 250XS Mercury in a colorful Autism Awareness ribbon. "Bassmaster Elite Tour wrapped boats gave me the idea," he says.
His girlfriend Deborah Berger, a graphics designer, provided the artistic guidance for the unique jigsaw-puzzle wrap, which includes a small portion near the console dedicated to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, because both of Delany's parents died of cancer.
"We are lucky to live in Boston, where health care is excellent," says the longtime member of BASS, who hopes to fish the Bassmaster Weekend Series, as well as other competitions. "But more rural areas where I take the boat don't have the benefit of places like Harvard Medical School. I wanted to get the message about autism to them."
And wherever he goes, Delany says, "People are happy and excited when they see the boat."
More than just individuals at gas stations and boat ramps have taken notice, as well. Angling organizations, including Northern Bass Supply, have donated funds to the New England Center for Children, where Luke goes to school.
"Kelly Jordon (Elite Series pro) helped me with contacts, including Gamma line, and with my first two online interviews and stories," Delany says. "I sent him pictures of the boat and he encouraged me to get the word out.
I can't say enough about how helpful he has been."

And now, it appears, Mercury Marine has answered Delany's prayer of getting endemic and nonendemic members of the fishing industry involved.
"John Hoagland, director of sales (for Mercury), contacted me," the Massachusetts angler says. "And now I'm working with Michelle Kilburn (manager of freshwater tournaments and events for Mercury) to create a National Autism Awareness program/poster.
"If this happens, it's going to be win-win-win for everybody, especially for kids in rural areas," says Delany.
"People need more information about autism. Intervention is the key. Kids don't outgrow autism and the sooner it is diagnosed, the better.
"Right now, there's no cure," he adds. "But I'm hoping that with continued research, spurred by the public, there will be better diagnoses and cures for all forms of autism."
Again aided by his artist girlfriend, Delany wants to create a poster that prominently features his boat and the Mercury outboard. It will feature information and statistics about autism, as well as Web sites and phone numbers that provide information about the disease.
The posters would be handed out at BASS events by Mercury staff members.
TAKING TO THE AIR
Delany also will be broadcasting his Autism Awareness message, courtesy of On the Water with Keith Nighswonger, an Internet radio show about bass fishing.
"Our weekly podcast will provide listeners with the latest fish catching tips and techniques being used on today's pro fishing tours. Leading into and out of our interviews will be messages of Autism Awareness," says Nighswonger (www.probassanglers.com).
"We want not only to raise awareness, but also to provide the outdoors-oriented person with support and a source of information where he may go to learn more about this growing national problem."
"I'd also like to have meet-and-greet sessions with the pros and autistic kids at the stops and have posters at Mercury dealers," Delany says. "We could help a staggering number of children this way."
Although the dedicated father doesn't say so, one of those helped just might be 7-year-old Luke.
"It's an honor being my son's dad," he says, adding that Berger's efforts and Luke's perseverance "make it easy for me to champion his cause and that of so many children affected by autism."
Luke has been going to school five days a week for 48 weeks a year since he was 3. "He loves going to school, and he became verbal about two years ago," his father says. "He has difficulties, but he can say two- or three-word sentences.
"The communication between a parent and a child with autism doesn't come easy," Delany continues. "But Luke loves the water. He can cast, and he likes to look at the birds.
"His favorite thing is to say, 'Go fast!' For him, that just means getting the boat up on plane, but there's such a gleam in his eye when he says it. It's a great connection for us to be out there together."
And maybe, one day, the two will fish a tournament together.
"I'm keeping my hopes up that he can overcome this and live a productive life," Delany says. "But no matter what happens, he always will be my little fishin' buddy."
Autism Information
The Autism Society of America describes autism as "a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities."
For more information:
Eli Delany, www.mylittlebuddysboat.com
Autism Society of America, www.autism-society.org
Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org
New England Center for Children, www.necc.org
Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation, www.dougflutiefjrfoundation.org

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