LAWRENCEVILLE -- With a plastic light saber in hand, 8-year-old Anthony Schandel led his family, dubbed "Team Jedi," in the 1-mile fun run during Saturday's Georgia Race for Autism.
His mother, Christine, said the family wanted to participate to support a wonderful cause.
But Anthony, who is on the autism spectrum, had a slightly different reason for wanting to participate.
"I knew it would be a good time and a chance to get some exercise," the third-grader said. "It's also the first time I've seen Papa (his grandfather) walk a mile."
Hundreds of people came to the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds in Lawrenceville for the race, which benefits the Greater Georgia Chapter of the Autism Society of America and Spectrum. The proceeds don't fund research; rather, they go toward programming and services for children and adults with autism.
Autism is a disorder of neural development, characterized by impaired social interaction and communication. One in 110 people are diagnosed with the disorder, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS, combined.
The Autism Society of America estimates the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism ranges from $3.5 million to $5 million and that the United States is facing almost $90 billion annually in costs for autism.
The disorder is the fastest growing serious developmental disability in the United States, with a 10 to 17 percent annual growth. Gwinnett County has one of the highest rates of autism in Georgia, McCune said.
In its fourth year, the race had to move to a new location because it kept growing, said Laurie McCune, the director of chapter relations for the Autism Society of America's Greater Georgia Chapter. When it moved to the fairgrounds this year, the race -- previously the Stonemill Race for Autism -- got a new moniker.
"We've had an overwhelming response from our local community," McCune said. "Moving here also gave us the opportunity to expand the race."
The annual event has included a 5K race, but a 10K was added this year. The courses were also certified by USA Track and Field, she said.
Last year, McCune said, event organizers knew that they needed to start looking for a new location, because the number of runners doubled from the year before.
"At that rate, we knew we would have to find another location," she said, adding that the numbers doubled again this year.
About 500 people signed up to run, but others came to enjoy the Family Fun Day festivities. The festival included bounce houses, a petting zoo, a hay ride and a train ride.
Dacula resident Tara Brown, who has a son with autism, said she thinks the festivities are a good way to raise awareness for the disorder.
"It's a place where the children are understood and can participate in activities that they might not be able to otherwise," she said.