Friday, February 27, 2009

What a Hit: Port Resident Has Kids With Autism Coming Up Winners

Port Washingtonian, John Crawley, left his architectural job last year to help his son Patrick who was diagnosed with autism. It was a daunting task, but if anyone knows how to take a project and run with it, it's Crawley. An avid sportsman and former quarterback, Crawley needed to find ways to get Patrick to connect with the outside world better and learn to work with others. Crawley used his own background and instead of designing buildings he designed a sports program for autistic kids.

"It's the most rewarding project I've ever embraced. I can't tell you what it's like to finally see your child connect with others and realize they are part of a team outside of themselves," said Crawley.

Through his effort and determination, the Children's Athletic Enrichment CAE was born. Its mission: allow each child to become what he or she is capable of. The key with this program is that it has been developed and run by educational professionals and certified ABA (applied behavioral analysis) therapists who work with kids with autism on a daily basis. Each child has different needs and therefore, Crawley says the professionals evaluate every child and work with them individually to learn a sport. Each child's progress is documented with charts and graphs and is integrated into the child's existing academic and behavioral program in school.

As with anything in Crawley's hands, this program has taken off and has already won awards for innovation. At least seven major universities in the United States have validated the program. It is on track to become a model for sports programs for kids with autism. Clinical psychologist, Molly Algermissen, PH.D. Columbia University, has worked with Crawley and has recommended the CAE program. "It provides a unique combination of occupational therapy, ABA training and social skills development in a natural environment for maximum therapeutic benefit," said Algermissen.

"The main difference with what we do with kids with autism is that we put them in a team setting outdoors so they are forced to socialize and have partners. Other outdoor programs generally provide individualized athletics such as horseback riding or surfing," said Crawley. "Kids with autism love to be by themselves. This program forces them to be in a group setting, which will make mainstreaming in school easier," said Crawley.

The program is only in its second year and it has met with rounds of success from children, parents and educational professionals. The children have been offered baseball/softball, soccer, swimming and the newest sport, gymnastics just started this year.

Sheila Bluni of Port Washington signed up her 6-year-old son as soon as she heard about the CAE program. Gavin has attended every sport that has been offered.

"I'm so glad this program is right here in our town. Our son, Gavin loves the CAE programs!" said Sheila Bluni of Port Washington. "He has participated in every program the CAE has offered and we are constantly amazed at the professionalism and educational value of the program, not to mention the fun! Gavin is a visual learner. The coaches give him detailed pictures of the sport so he can see exactly what he's supposed to do, how to hold the bat, where to run, etc. I also feel they really understand Gavin and encourage him to meet his full potential. Now Gavin likes to play baseball at home and loves to hit home runs with his siblings!" said Bluni.

Bluni says she will continue to sign up Gavin for more CAE sports-including baseball, swimming and soccer.

The program is offered for boys and girls ages 4 to 8. Crawley is a volunteer, but the educators are all paid and certified and include master's level: adaptive phys ed. teachers, occupational and physical therapists and ABA therapists. Sports uses gross motor skills and so the CAE program is recognized for complementing the therapeutic benefits of the academic programs for these children. Each child takes home an individualized book, which include PECS - picture exchange communication system, a visual explanation of the sport. The book also shows real pictures of the child playing the sport and interacting as a team member. They have color-coded uniforms so they can identify team members.

It is so exciting to me that we have so many kids who want to be in the program said Crawley. Only 18 kids are accepted per program and they have to fall within the autistic spectrum. The cost is $300 per kid per 6-week session. CAE raises money to supplement the fees that go above that. If a child can't afford it, Crawley works with the parents. In fact, Crawley says half of the kids receive some sort of scholarship funding. As a grassroots, not-for-profit organization, CAE has caught the eye of many service organizations, like the Lions Club, who want to help. In 2008, the International Lions Club organization awarded Crawley with the Most Innovative Program Award. Local businesses have also taken an interest in the program. Senator Craig Johnson, Port SEPTA, The Rexford Group, PW Water Pollution Control District, Port Washington Tennis Academy. LaCorte's Family Auto, recently held a fundraiser and donated all the funds directly to the program.

The next program, baseball, starts in April. Sheila Bluni and her son Gavin will be first in line to sign up!

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