Thursday, July 31, 2008

The impact of autism and a mom's hope

New Island school adds to services for growing population
Sunday, July 27, 2008

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Like most parents, Marilyn Sarin didn't take it lightly when she found out her daughter had autism.

"I cried," she said. "I cried and cried. When she was first diagnosed, I think it was one of the scariest things I've ever been through."

The Pleasant Planes resident wondered if 2-year-old Gia Nicole would ever lead a normal life, whether she would ever learn to speak and socialize with others her age. She also wondered if she was the only one with those fears.

"It's really hard because other people don't understand what you're going through," Mrs. Sarin said.

Her outlook changed once Thursday's Child moved to Staten Island. An early-intervention school for kids with autism, Thursday's Child opened in Dongan Hills in March, bringing with it a support system for parents like Mrs. Sarin and innovative learning techniques for children like Gia.

Autism spectrum disorders are developmental disabilities that can be diagnosed to children who are about two years old and have shown impairment in social interaction and problems with communication. It is also marked by restricted or repetitive behaviors.

Dr. Helen Murphy, one of the school's founders, said Thursday's Child is new to the Island, but not new. She has been running a branch in Brooklyn for about 10 years and recognized a need for a school here when she noticed a lot of Island families traveling to the branch in Brooklyn.

Thursday's Child is a public school and tuition is funded by the city and state. It is among a handful of schools on the Island for children with autism though its focus on early intervention is rare. Dr. Murphy has welcomed about 20 Island families to the new school since it opened in March.

In the classroom, students receive one-on-one attention from a teaching assistant and practice the three R's: Repetition, reinforcement, and reward. Jeanne Ward, the school's educational director, said children with autism are so easily distracted that they need to practice even the simplest of behavioral actions over and over again to learn them.

She said parents typically come to the school with goals that are broken down into "small, achievable tasks." For example, if parents want their children to learn to talk, the school would teach children to sit and be attentive and make eye contact -- basic skills that can be challenging for kids with autism.

Children typically spend about 10 hours a week at the school and another 10 hours with a therapist at home, Ms. Ward said.

Throughout the day, teachers scribble furiously on clipboards, marking down every step of a child's progress. An identical set of files are sent home so parents and therapists can pick up where the school left off, Ward said.

On a recent tour of the school, Rob Mignone, a teaching assistant, plopped down on the carpeted floor next to 2-year-old Aiden Miguel Lozado from Meiers Corners, a sea of Lego blocks spread out before them.

Mignone asked Aiden Miguel to pick out a blue block and place it on top of another blue one. Instead, Aiden Miguel got on his knees, turned around and began to crawl away.

"Where are you going?" Mignone said, gently lifting him and sitting him back down. He gestured once more toward the blocks and Aiden Miguel began to put them together, one by one.

"Great job," Mignone said. "Now let's keep going."

It's that sort of patience, persistence and encouragement that parents say has paid off.

Kari Basile, a Great Kills resident, said that her 3-year-old son, Paul, has been at the school for a few months and that she's amazed how quickly he's improved.

"He went from grunting and pointing to speaking in complete sentences," she said. "He can participate in an actual conversation, which he never used to do."

Her favorite part of the school day is when Paul mingles with other children -- some autistic, some not -- at an on-site day-care center that is open to anyone in the community. As Paul paints pictures of animals and reads Barney books with some of the other children, he learns how to be around other people without feeling awkward or afraid, Ms. Basile said.

Anyone interested in learning about Thursday's Child can walk in to the school on Seaview Avenue or call 311 and ask about the Early Intervention Program. TAG:Newhouse News Service material was used in this report.

Amisha Padnani covers education for the Advance. She may be reached at

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