NASCAR legend creates program for autistic young adults

By Jackson Sveen (The Herald Weekly, Nov. 1, 2012).

DAVIDSON – For help, join IGNITE.

The new Davidson-based program hopes to support young adults with High Functioning Autism or Asperger Syndrome in the Lake Norman and Charlotte region.

Founded by the Evernham Family Racing for a Reason, the nonprofit started by NASCAR crew chief legend and ESPN analyst Ray Evernham, is partnering with the Autism Society of North Carolina.

Evernham’s child Ray J, who lives with Asperger Syndrome, is the group’s first member.

“Asperger Syndrome is something that has directly impacted the Evernham family and it wasn’t until my son Ray J reached adult age that we realized there isn’t a place he can go to for daily support and interaction with his peers,” said Evernham.

According to its website, IGNITE’s mission is to help its members “enjoy a better quality of life as valued members of the community in which they live and work.”

An estimated one in every 88 children born in the United States today has some form of disorder that falls under the autism spectrum.

In North Carolina, the numbers are worse with an estimated one in 70 children affected. There are more than 60,000 people in the state living with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

The program is membership-based and will use small-groups to enhance the social skills of its members. If accepted, members are placed within a group of their peers who will go out to restaurants, watch movies or other activities where they will get to practice their social skills in a safe but real environment.

To join, perspective members fill out a questionnaire and are interviewed to gauge where they fall on the spectrum for autism disorders.

“Just because you’re on the spectrum doesn’t mean you’re all alike,” said Stacy Hultgren, IGNITE’s program director.

“They are vastly different from each other, so we want to make sure that it’s a good match of a group. To make sure they are going to be willing to go out in the community with this group and interact with them.”

She said IGNITE will invoke a more creative approach than many of the “cookie cutter” state services. “They teach you skills, get you in the job and then they get out.”

Instead of strictly focusing on vocational rehabilitation, the program will teach social skills that members can use at a job or college.

“Every (member) is going to be different and we are going to target what they need to learn for where they want to go.” Hultgren said. “We don’t want to tell them where they should go or what they want to do. They’ve already had enough of that in school. So it’s really helping them to move along their own path,” .

Because of the age group that IGNITE hopes to serve, the program is looking for volunteers in their 20s to be mentors. For information, visit

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