Dolphus Teart hears the question all the time: Are more children diagnosed with autism today because of the growing awareness efforts?
The answer is a resounding “yes,” the autism-support program coordinator said.
It seems every other month there’s a fundraiser walk to support autism awareness somewhere. And who doesn’t recognize the infamous puzzle piece that has come to represent autism spectrum disorders.
It’s efforts like Teart’s and those of his long-time friend, George Shadie, that have helped folks in the Wyoming Valley area grow more cognizant of the autism spectrum, and, more importantly, ways to help their children grow in spite of it.
Teart, who lives in Wilkes-Barre, runs the non-profit Parents & Professionals, a collaboration between him and his friend, Julie Miller, to plan day trips and social events for families living with autism.
Teart also works closely, in the same office building in fact, with Shadie who co-founded Supporting Autism and Families Everywhere (SAFE) with his late wife, Claire.
Claire Shadie died in 2001.
Both men were drawn to creating resources for families with children who have autism because they themselves have children with it.
New teaching method
Back in 2002, George Shadie took science-based methods to elementary school classroom with the Verbal Behavior Project, a teaching method that integrates parents, teachers, school administrators and children to develop communication skills in children with autism.
“If you can give them communication, you can give them the world,” Shadie said.
Three years later, the state Department of Education took the reins and administered the program throughout Pennsylvania.
It now goes by the name Autism Initiative, and is run by the department’s Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN).
There are about 250 schools in Pennsylvania that take part in the initiative and about 350 classrooms that receive state support in evaluating results, training educators and working through lesson plans to reach communication milestones, according to a program summary published in March by initiative consultant Mike Miklos.
Shadie has given talks on the methods he used to start the program as far away as Great Britain, and his practices have been adopted in other classrooms across the country.
During Pennsylvania’s 2011-12 school year, there are 23,400 students with autism, Miklos writes. That’s about 22,000 more than were on individualized learning plans in the 1993-94 school year.
Shadie and Teart credit their own children’s development to the focus on communication skills SAFE implemented.
Shadie’s son Alex has autism, but the 24-year-old manages his own credit cards and can make purchases on his own.
Teart said his own son, Tevon, 23, might not be able to perform those tasks, but he still is making progress, still achieving little victories.
“I don’t think there can be many more disabilities where people are just as appreciative as we are of the smallest things,” Teart said.
SAFE offers regular support programs for parents and socialization opportunities for children and teens to get together in a no-judgment environment.
Some of their regular programs include monthly parent support meetings in Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre; free one-on-one musical instrument lessons for children; one-time training sessions on the latest in education and therapy practices; and training groups for families to learn about laws that address their children’s disabilities.
Parents & Professionals, founded in 2005, has served more than 5,000 people with one-time events like an annual bus trip to the Philadelphia Zoo, day camps and group train rides from Steamtown.