Variety the Children’s Charity is bringing a life-changing resource to local families

Autism rates have been rising in the United States with one in 36 kids on the autism spectrum. But we often don’t understand the challenges these families face. One local family is crediting Variety the Children’s Charity for a life-changing device.

Like a lot of kids who are four, Kolton Schaeffer loves to run — through the grass, up the walkway and down the hall of their home in Bethel Park. Running is fun, but Kolton is on the autism spectrum, is non-verbal and is what’s called an “eloper.”

“He’ll just take off. He’s very fast. He’s much faster than my other children, too,” says Kolton’s mom, Kristin Armel. “In a split second, he will take off. So you know, as soon as you let him out of the car … he has no idea of any kind of, like, danger.”

Kristin is terrified to take him anywhere, especially when she doesn’t have her 13-year-old daughter, Ava, to help watch her three younger kids — Holden, who’s 3, another son who’s 5, and Kolton. But life changed dramatically when the family got this adaptive stroller designed for young people with special needs up to age 21 to keep them strapped in and safe.

Photos courtesy of KDKA.

“The other stroller that I had for him was a double stroller, and he was able to break out of the plastic straps,” Armel says. “Kolton is an eloper. So anywhere I take him, he takes off. He comes out of the stroller. He bangs his head on the ground.”

The adaptive stroller, at no cost to Kristin from Variety the Children’s Charity, opened up their world.

“It’s just so much easier to go out places with them,” Ava says. “Before, it was hard. He was busting out of the stroller and running through the store.”

Kristin adds: “It was a blessing to our family, including his siblings, because then it was like he wasn’t limited anymore. We weren’t limited to where they can go. We took his sister to the mall. He was able to go with us to go get school clothes. He’s able to go to the zoo. We can go to the grocery store like normal people.”

A study from the journal “Pediatrics” found that half of children over age 4 on the autism spectrum tried to elope – that’s one million kids in the U.S.

A quarter of those kids were missing long enough to cause concern. Of those, two-thirds were at risk of getting hit by a car and a quarter were at risk of drowning.

Dr. Alan Kohrt, a pediatrician for 50 years and a former board member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says families of kids who are “elopers” often say they feel trapped in their own home. In fact, the same study found that 62% of the families said concerns about eloping prevented their family from attending or enjoying activities outside the home, and half got no guidance on what to do about it.

Dr. Kohrt wants them to know about the adaptive strollers.

“The word needs to get out,” Dr. Kohrt says. “I think the program that Variety has with giving these strollers out — I think that needs to be publicized. I think more pediatricians, more OT’s (occupational therapists), PT’s (physical therapists), people need to know about it, so they can go ahead and recommend them. Because it does really provide that safety that’s so critically important.”

Currently, insurance doesn’t cover this type of stroller, which costs $1,800. Variety offers them at no cost to families in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but is also trying to get insurers and governments to see the necessity so any family across the country who needs one can get one.

Charlie LaVallee, CEO of Variety the Children’s Charity, says not only is it a medical need, it’s a social and mental health need for the entire family.

“I think we don’t understand the stakes and how high they are for our families,” he says, “because I think if we did, to me the beauty of America and certainly the beauty of Western Pennsylvania, neighbor helping neighbor, if we knew, we would want to help.”

When Kristin was asked what she wants families of kids with autism or other disabilities to know about the strollers, she said this: “I think they should know how life changing it is for families. It’s very important. It’s a safety issue number one, and these kids deserve to have the same quality of life as everyone else.”

If you or someone you know could use an adaptive stroller, go to Variety the Children’s Charity’s PA/WV website. The income qualifications are very generous, and many more people qualify than think they do.

See more stories on the other important programs from Variety the Children’s Charity here and here.