The number is 1 in 36, as in the prevalence of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has grown to one in 36 (2.8 percent) 8-year-old children, according to the CDC. That number was 1 in 44 just two years ago and, when the Philadelphia Eagles turned their philanthropic eye and efforts toward autism research and development preparing for the first Eagles Autism Challenge, the number was 1 in 54 and shortly before that it was 1 in 68.
As the Eagles and a world of Eagles fans, corporate partners and a community very much aware of the depth of Autism's reach prepare for Saturday's 6th Annual Eagles Autism Challenge at Lincoln Financial Field, they do so with incredible energy for an event that will attract more than 4,500 participants including more than 50 Eagles players, along with the coaching staff and the entire Eagles organization and they bring great optimism that they are making a difference.
They are changing the world.
"We raised over $2 million and brought a couple of thousand people together for our first event in 2018," said Ryan Hammond, the executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. "Six years later, here we are. We've managed to continue momentum through a global pandemic and now we have a record-setting event in front of us with more than 4,500 people walking, riding, running. We've raised more than $6 million this year and we are not done yet! The response from not only the community but from the Eagles organization has been in full force.
"Our players are still jumping in. We have more than 40 players riding in the 10-mile event. We players who have young families doing the 5k with their children. We have coaches and our organization really taking part once again. This was Jeffrey's (Lurie, Eagles CEO/Chairman) vision – to create an event and call it a challenge because it is a physical challenge and it's a challenge to bring people together and to raise money to drive breakthroughs in innovation and research. Our aim is to fund programs to meet families where they are today and ultimately improve their lives.
"It's been incredible."
The Eagles have raised more than $20 million since 2018 and that money has gone directly toward cutting-edge autism research and care programs, with 83 research projects and community grants delivered. The initial message was to bring "awareness" to a public not quite sure what Autism was or how it impacted them, and now the word most used is "action." The Eagles are making things happen. Lurie leveraged the Eagles' platform to deliver change and that is what Hammond and her team and the entire organization and a supportive community and corporate drive has done.
"We created this as our philanthropic priority off the field and with Jeffrey's vision and support, we don't have an identity crisis," said Hammond. "We know what we're doing. We're taking this responsibility for the now 1 in 36 people affected by autism. This is a meaningful connection to our team on every level – we have more than 25,000 donors this season. Here is an example of how much impact we have: From the day we clinched a spot in the 2022 playoffs to the day we played in the Super Bowl, we raised $1 million. Our fans feel connected and part of the team and, together, we're making this shift from 'awareness,' to 'action.' This is a vehicle to have a meaningful connection to our team and fans have really responded to this.
"Fans want to get behind this and support our team and they know that together we're doing something really special here."
The Eagles have created a very true sense of inclusion within the team – Lincoln Financial Field has a Sensory Room and the Eagles worked with the NFL and Culture City to create a Sensory Room at State Farm Stadium in Arizona during Super Bowl week – and that has been a valuable touch point.
"It was an incredible experience to make that happen," Hammond said.
For fans who going to be there this weekend for Friday night's Kickoff Party and Saturday's Eagles Autism Challenge that features a 5k walk/run, a 10k ride and the Wawa Classic 30-mile bike ride through the streets of Philadelphia that ends on the 50-yard line at Lincoln Financial Field, you're going to have a great time and you're going to be creating positive change in the world. For those who want to enter late, no problem. You can do so online at (link to Eagles Autism Foundation Page), you can be a virtual participant, or you can donate to a team. You can also make a last-minute decision by coming to Lincoln Financial Field that morning and registering there.
"This weekend is the culmination of a year of work and I am so thankful for everyone who is part of this," Hammond said. "We know we're making a difference and ultimately that is what drives all of us."
Championed by Eagles Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles Autism Challenge sets out to fund innovative research, drive scientific breakthroughs, and provide critical resources to create a major shift from awareness to action. One hundred percent of participant-raised funds from the team's signature charity event are invested into the autism research and care community, with more than $16 million raised in its five years.