ESTERO, Fla.- Southwest Floridians pounded the pavement Saturday morning to raise awareness and funds for autism advocacy and research.

Southwest Florida Walk Now for Autism Speaks took place at Estero Community Park.

It's a unique fundraising event that offers a safe and fun day for families impacted by autism. The day includes a two to three-mile Walk and Community Resource fair with educational sources, therapists, schools, recreational organizations, and creative child-friendly activities - a true "one-stop-shop" for families affected by autism.

Autism spectrum disorder is now diagnosed in 1 in every 88 children, including 1 in 54 boys, making it the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.

About 80 teams dressed in different colors walked in honor of a loved one. 3-year-old Marcus Montalvo's family "Marched for Marcus." His mom Amanda Smith says Marcus was diagnosed with autism about a year and a half ago.

She says, "it's been a long struggle and Autism Speaks has been a great support system. And all the help and research we can get and hopefully provide a better solution for these kids is really important."

Life hasn't always been easy since his diagnosis, but Smith says her family hopes more people will learn about the disorder. "It's always something, trying to find ways for him to have engagement and early intervention and he's made leaps and bounds and it is all worth it in the end."

Sharon Boyd is a grassroots organizer with Autism Speaks and also has two sons on the autism spectrum. She says events like today's walk are inspiring. "Today is a day that our families are normal, today is a day our kids fit in, we don't get judged, we don't get looked at differently, our kids don't get looked at differently." She adds, "one of the greatest gifts we get is we appreciate things that so many other parents just don't even think about."

She says when her son was first diagnosed, 1 in 500 kids were diagnosed with autism. Now that number is 1 in 88, and she says that is disheartening.  "We need whoever sits in any office to realize, that's not acceptable."

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders - autism spectrum disorders - caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. An estimated 1 in 88 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum - a 1000 percent increase in the past 40 years that is only partly explained by improved diagnosis. 

The Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are the signature fundraising events for Autism Speaks, raising more than  $28.5 million alone in 2011 in 85 cities across the U.S. and Canada  to support autism research, awareness and advocacy. Last year's Southwest Florida Walk Now for Autism Speaks attracted more than 2,000 walkers and raised over $82,000. Autism Speaks has made a significant impact in the Southwest Florida area. In addition to its national efforts, the organization has provided funding for local services, including summer camps; safety and autism experience assistance as well as outreach to underserved communities through its Family Services Community Grant program. Autism Speaks science grants have supported research at Florida International University, Florida State University, University of Central Florida, University of Miami totaling over 3.4 million dollars.

For more information about the 2012 Southwest Florida Walk Now for Autism Speaks, please visit www.walknowforautismspeaks.org/swflorida or to learn about the 1 in 88 campaign, visit www.autismspeaks.org.