April 6, 2013

Celebrating Autism Advocates

Posted in AMT's Faves, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 11:41 am by autismmommytherapist

Bobbie 002

April is Autism Awareness month, and as such provides an opportunity both to recognize the families struggling with the impact autism has made on their lives as well as to honor those who are helping to make their lives better. Among those leading the effort are three advocates who have helped countless families affected by autism. Bobbie Gallagher has been honored by Congress for her advocacy work in autism. As Executive Director of POAC Autism Services, Gary Weitzen has trained tens of thousands of teachers, parents, and first responders throughout the state, and provided programming for families of autistic individuals. Vincent Scanelli has fostered relationships between autistic and neurotypical children as founder of Someone Special Needs You (SSNY), and is now working to build group homes for adults with autism. All three were recently interviewed to share their experiences. Below is the first interview in the series.

For the past two decades, Bobbie Gallagher has been advocating for autistic individuals. Her actions have led to positive changes in public schools, investigations into the high prevalence of autism in her home town of Brick, NJ, and federal legislation to support autism research and care. She was recently honored by U.S. Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, who successfully petitioned to have the American flag flown over the US Capitol in honor of her autism advocacy. Bobbie is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and owner of the Autism Center for Educational Services (ACES), which assists parents and educators in developing behavioral programs for autistic children (www.autismcenterforeducationalservices.com). Bobbie is the mother of three children, including a twenty-one-year-old girl and a nineteen-year-old boy with autism.

Kim: How did you come to be such a strong autism advocate?

Bobbie: “There are really two main reasons. First, we have two children with autism, and there is no autism in our family. We can trace back our family tree a long time on both sides. I kept thinking something had to have happened. My husband and I got involved with a parent support group run by POAC in Brick, and we realized that the numbers of children with autism in our town had grown so much we had to move the support group to a much bigger room. It motivated me to find out what was happening in Brick.”

“I soon found out that life outside our home was much harder than inside because of all the people we had to deal with to get help for our kids, and to investigate this cluster in Brick. We eventually made it all the way to the federal government with studies conducted in our town, but nobody gave us any answers. I’ll never forget receiving a brochure from the Physicians for Social Responsibility, who sent us a document entitled “Inconclusive by Design.” We never did get any reasons for why there was such an increase, but I’m very proud we made it to the federal level with the investigation.”

“The second reason I became such a strong advocate was due to the public school system. We sent our first child with autism out of district, but decided after a while we didn’t want her there anymore, and didn’t want to send our second affected child there either. That was the first time someone told us our district had its own program. After that I started bringing the New Jersey Administrative Code with me to meetings, because people didn’t even know what our kids were entitled to. I’ve found the hardest part about continuing to fight all the time is that we may get change for one child, including a better education and better services, but the schools think that what they provide for five other kids is good enough, and they don’t make broad changes.”

Kim: Tell me a little about your work with U.S. Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey.

Bobbie: “Chris got involved with us right away after we met with him and showed him surveys we had done about the numbers of autistic individuals in Brick. He called the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to get them involved, and then we all met with officials in Washington, DC. He helped open doors for us. With the assistance of co-chair U.S. Representative Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, he founded the bipartisan Coalition on Autism Research and Education (CARE).

He was also the primary sponsor for the bill HR 2005, the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act (CARA). This bill was signed into law (Public Law P.L.112-32) in 2011, and extends the Combating Autism Act of 2006 for three more years. It was a follow-up to his Autism Statistics, Surveillance, Research, and Epidemiology Act (ASSURE, Title 1, P.L. 106-310), which allowed the creation of regional centers of excellence in epidemiology and autism surveillance. Although autism had the highest numbers in the disability world, in the past, funding for other disabled groups always surpassed us. This was the first time we surpassed them in funding dollars, and it really helped.”

Kim: How does it feel to have the flag flown at half-mast over the US Capitol in your honor?

Bobbie: “It’s probably my proudest thing, even though I didn’t get to see it! I found out at the annual POAC Gala, but I was just in shock there. A couple of days later it kicked in and I just thought “that is really awesome!”. It’s my proudest moment, it means so much that people recognized what we had done. It was nice to get the recognition for our efforts. If we need to be called in to do something again, we would do it.”

Kim: Where do you hope to see Alanna and Austin in ten years?

Bobbie: “We will probably live in a different state, somewhere warmer where they can enjoy being outside. They’ll be living with us, and hopefully we’ll have enough support for them! I don’t foresee that they’ll be employed, but I do see them being happy. Alanna in particular has a full day, and a full life- she really enjoys it. Austin will always be the bigger puzzle. He is more difficult behaviorally and medically, and challenges us much more. Because of how challenging he can be, he really drives me to do what I need to do. He makes us feel like we always have to do more.”

Autism Center for Educational Services (ACES)

http://www.autismcenterforeducationalservices.com/

(732) 840-1888

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