Diagnosis Day -- You Lose Your Breath
On April 19, 2004, our youngest son was diagnosed with autism. At the time I reached out to a dear friend from Wall Street who shared a prescient view: "Once you get your son squared away, you and Liz are going to help a lot of people." I dismissed the prediction. We had immediate problems: teaching "E" to talk, use the toilet, dress himself, make eye contact, share, take turns, understand life and death, love, overcome frustration, regulate with others, engage with people for the love of social connection. A neuro-typical child learns how to function organically. A child with special needs must be taught in a systematic way. I estimate that "E" and I have spent 800 hours learning how to cross a street. Teaching a child with Autism is an intensive mission. It wears on the pysche and the checkbook. Each day, Liz and I, and a host of therapists and professionals instructed "E" on day to day tasks and gradually increased the sophistication of his newly acquired world view. We knew of other boys who shared the same issues. Eventually, with the guidance of a teacher, a sassy little girl and three young boys diagnosed with Autism, we created our first social skills group. This group met once a week for over a period of two years. During this time, these youngsters developed peer interaction skills, and meaningful friendships began to blossom.
The Shake in the Middle of the Night.....
One night Liz shook me awake. "We need to help more kids," she said. "These kids need their own place to go. I want to open a non profit organization for children with Autism and other special needs. You're a Realtor. Go find me office space." So Liz and Dawn Fittipaldi, O.S.P.'s Executive Director (who has over twenty year experience working with children with special needs), started the legal process. One year later the Internal Revenue Service approved Our Special Place as a registered 501(c)-3. Over the years, Liz, Dawn, Jeannine and many volunteers have raised thousands of dollars enabling O.S.P. the opportunity to provide our clients and their families with quality services and support.
Our Special Place was founded by three little boys who didn't know the odds were stacked against them when we started. At that time, studies showed, only 10% of children with autism obtained jobs as adults, only 5% lived independently, and less than 1% got married and raised children of their own.
We're blessed. God blessed "E" with an indefatigable spirit. Our son now knows he has autism. He's asked if he'll get married and father children. "E" is considered higher functioning. One day while we were driving to the center he opined that we named O.S.P. wrong. "It should be called My Special Place, because I started it." We've added humility to the list of things "E" needs to work on.
- Andrew Lenza