Group seeks to create resource center

gala tonight

Families find help dealing with autism

March 31, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In 1993, when the Howard County chapter of the Autism Society of America was founded, 11 children in the county had been diagnosed as having autism, said Catriona Johnson, a past president and member since 1995. Today, that number has soared to more than 450 children, giving Howard County the most cases of autism per capita in the state, she said.

"The rate of children with autism in Howard County just continues to grow and grow," said Debbie Clutts, co-president of the chapter.

The Howard County Autism Society provides services and information to about 500 families and professionals in the county. It also is an advocate for improving county services, she said.

That is why members of the organization say they are ready to create a resource center, with a library and staff, that would also serve as a meeting place for the chapter's frequent guest speakers and events.

The goal, said chapter Vice President Beth Hill, is "to create a place where parents can come and just have everything in one place."

She added: "When parents are new to this diagnosis, it's devastating. It would be nice for them to know where they could turn."

The chapter is giving a gala tonight at Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center to help raise money for the center.

One reason for the county's growth in autism cases is that awareness of autism - a lifelong disability with a range of symptoms related to communication and social skills - has increased. Another is that families move to Howard County for its autism services, including an aggressive early-intervention program in the public schools and a strong record of including older children in regular education classes, members of the chapter said.

When Tracie Feron's son was diagnosed as having autism, Feron moved her family from Anne Arundel County to Ellicott City.

That was eight years ago, and Connor, now 10, is doing well in a private school, said Feron, chairwoman of tonight's gala. And Feron wants to make sure that other children with autism get as much help as they can.

Clutts remembers how the chapter helped her family after she learned that her son Matt had autism.

"They provided assurance to us that yes, you're in an awful place right now, but things will get better and there are really good services in the county," she said. "I think they may also have referred me to a parent or two to talk with."

Members of the chapter are particularly proud of the organization's advocacy work. The society has worked with the county school system to create a new position focused on autism in the early years.

This school year, Melanie Shaw was hired to fill that job, and the chapter is working toward creating a similar post focused on older students.

Feron said talk of having a resource center began about 18 months ago when Howard chapter's board of directors created a five-year plan. A resource center emerged as a cornerstone of the plan.

"We decided to have a little fundraiser," she said. But the event soon became larger than anticipated.

Speakers tonight will include Lee Grossman, president of the national Autism Society, and Kristen Cox, secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities.

The gala is called the "Pieces of the Puzzle," a common slogan that refers to the mystery and complexity of autism. All participants will receive a pin of a brightly colored puzzle. The different colors symbolize the diversity of those with the condition, and the brightness indicates a hopeful future, Feron said.

The original goal of the event was to raise $40,000, said Feron, but revenues are now expected to be closer to $75,000.

At $100 a ticket, the 300-seat venue sold out without benefit of either invitations or advertising. And corporate sponsor Creig Northrop and his team of Long and Foster Realtors donated $10,000.

A silent auction run by chapter Co-president Stephanie Maric is expected to bring in additional revenue. Items to be auctioned include a baseball autographed by B.J. Surhoff, an Orioles outfielder whose son has autism; and several golf, sports and weekend getaway packages.

Still, chapter officials believe one to two years will pass before a resource center is created. "It will take a lot more money than I believe we're going to raise," Feron said.

"Right now, there are so many details we just don't have - where this place would be, what kind of office space we could get," said Beth Hill, vice president of the chapter.

The chapter's monthly meetings are held at the Meeting House in Columbia. A library is in the Board of Education building. Pamphlets are scattered among member houses, and the phone is staffed by a roster of volunteers.

The resource center would give the chapter flexibility to host speakers without forcing members to scramble to find available space, Feron said.

"We're so big at this point and the need is there," said Johnson.

Information; contact the Howard County Autism Society at 410-760-5595 or e-mail info@howard-autism.org.

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