Story & Photos By HOWARD GIRSKY Senior Editor
A silent epidemic that robs youngsters of their ability to speak, laugh and make eye contact with parents or siblings is growing, with one child in 500 born with this poorly understood developmental ailment, experts meeting at a Fresh Meadows school revealed on Sunday.
An estimated 200 parents of autistic children jammed two auditoriums to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton vow that she will use her influence to increase sorely needed funding for research and teacher training.
President Clinton signed a bill that has quadrupled funding for autism, she said, but we realize more is needed to find the cause of this disability affecting so many children in our country.
Clinton, wearing a yellow pants suit, came to the Queens school following the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan. She said as first lady she is a tireless advocate for children, citing her earlier work for the Childrens Defense Fund.
Clinton said that research needs to be expanded so that doctors can establish the origin of autism. Some experts believe it is caused by a virus, toxins or some environmental hazard.
The audience roared their approval when the first lady, the Democratic candidate for the Senate, pledged that she would serve as an advocate for children suffering from autism.
Ken Farber, research director of the Autism Coalition of the Empire State, told the audience on a sultry Sunday that federal officials had declared the 1990s as the decade of the brain.
Weve seen great progress made in Alzheimers Disease, asthma, cystic fibrosis and other diseases, he said. But we in the autistic community unfortunately can only watch from the sidelines and we are frustrated.
Farber said the good news is that scientists are learning that there is a genetic proclivity in autism sufferers and indicated it could eventually lead to a drug.
Mrs. Clinton yours is a powerful and articulate voice that can help our cause immeasurably.
Carl Walsh of Howard Beach whose daughter Bianca is an autistic five year old told The Queens Courier that he discovered Biancas speech deficit when she was 18 months old. Shes been attending P.S. 177s special classes since she was two and one-half.
Shes made excellent progress at the school which specializes in teaching the autistic child, he said. She speaks, reads, writes and knows the family, but still speaks in incomplete sentences. Biancas teacher, Stacy Hochstadt of Flushing agreed that Bianca has made great strides. We have six children to a class which includes one teacher and a paraprofessional, she said.
Asked what she would like to tell Hillary Clinton, Hochstadt said, its simply this, we need your help to gain awareness for this tragic condition and gain for us the needed funds for research and teacher training.
Toni Felson of Ozone Park said her son Steven is two and one-half and suffers from delayed speech and poor eye contact.
Hes doing wonderfully since coming to P.S. 177, she said. He has a lot of interests including music.
P.S. 177 has 33 classes of autistic children each with only six children per class. There are 180 autistic children in all in the Fresh Meadows school.
Andrew Bauman, chairman of the state autistic coalition, introduced Clinton.
Next to the birth of my children and my marriage this is the most exciting moment of my life.
Bauman was highly critical of insurance companies that deny coverage to autistic children. He said that the coalition had presented legislators with a position paper that notes a 153.6 per cent increase in autism. He decried the State Education Departments moratorium on the approval and expansion of non public schools providing specialized services to children.
It restricts the rights of hundreds if not thousands of children who are at severe risk of failure in school to receive an appropriate education.
A spokesperson for the Autism Society of America said the disorder makes it difficult for verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities.
The disorder makes it hard for them to communicate with others and relate to the outside world, the spokesperson said.
What Is Autism?
They are often mute, fail to develop normal social behavior and are withdrawn and appear disinterested in other children. This devastating disease is known as autism and affects one in every 500 children born in the U.S.
Autisms cause remains a mystery. Pediatricians fail to pick it up and are often unaware of the warning signs that herald the condition. Medical authorities say it is a neurologically-based developmental brain disorder that often appears within a childs first three years of life. Sufferers of autism may have difficulty in processing and integrating information and require a large number of repeated opportunities to learn new skills.
Unusual responses to sensory stimulation are characteristic of children with autism. The resulting wide behavioral variations are often attributed to an inexplicable loss of skills, an unpredictable responsiveness to normally rewarding events or an overreaction or under reaction to stimulation in the environment.
Parents of these children can expect severe behaviors including a strong resistance to changes in routine or the environment, self-injury, aggression, distractibility and self-stimulation.
Officials of The Autism Coalition of the Empire State report that funding is lagging and is urgently needed to learn the causes and prevention of the disease and the training of teachers of the autistic.
First Lady Vows Funding At Queens School Visit:
Story & Photos By HOWARD GIRSKY Senior Editor