Melissa Snider and her husband, Mark, of Massapequa have their Saturday nights to themselves — for a change.
And while they are enjoying an evening to themselves, their sons, Corey, 16, and Trevor, 15, have begun attending supervised social activities for autistic people ages 11 to 21 at the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center in East Hills.
“We had a woman who helped us with the kids for a long time but she left a few years ago and this is the first opportunity Mark and I have to go out and have dinner and a movie,” Snider said, adding that the program is also ideal for her sons.
“This program is providing them an appropriate situation for a Saturday night. It is supervised, structured and controlled. It’s a godsend for the families and the adults and the kids.”
The program, fully funded through a grant from Michael and Ruth Slade and family, began this month as a respite for the caregivers of children with autism. It runs from 7 until 9:30 p.m. and is the only one of its kind in New York State, according to Margaret Fraser, director of the JCC’s Afterschool Respite Programs.
A similar program from noon until 4 p.m. is slated to start in November for autistic youngsters ages 5 to 18. Because of a grant from UJA-Federation of New York, it too will be offered free.
“We get some New York State money, in addition to the private funding,” said Susan Bender, the JCC’s executive director. According to the Autism Society of America, autism, a neurological disorder that affects communication, social interaction and behavior, is the fastest growing developmental disability, affecting about one out of 166 children born in the United States. Children are born with the disorder, but it does not become apparent until the child is 2 or 3. Symptoms of autism are repetitive behavior, a lack of eye contact and difficulties with speech development. “There is no known reason for it,” Bender said. “It could be because of a combination of environment and biology. … There is no cure for it, no real known cause and no way to control it.”
The JCC is no stranger to programs for autistic children. Bender said it offers a five-day-a-week respite program that Fraser supervises for 48 youngsters ages 5 to 21. It is operated from 3:30 until 5:30 p.m. It too is offered for free.
“Autism is more prevalent in boys than in girls,” she said. “We have only three girls out of 48 students.”
Although the Sniders’ two sons have autism, their 13-year-old daughter, Paige, does not.
The JCC program is carefully supervised because the youngsters can hurt themselves or others.
“Every child exhibits such different behavior,” Bender said. “Some are extremely intelligent in certain areas.” Snider said her two boys are very different from each other.
“Corey is really easy-going,” she said. “He loves sports and he sailed through puberty. But Trevor is not interested in sports and he has more behavioral problems. Puberty has been incredibly difficult for him.”
Both boys attend the weekday respite program three days a week.
“I’m not sure that if I sent them five-days-a-week that they would love going,” the boys’ mother said. “They love to go because they do not have to go everyday. They love, love, love to go, and I feel extremely lucky to have that program and to be a part of it. And the boys work out at the JCC with a personal trainer, who sets up a program for them and the staff to follow for 45-minutes to an hour.” The brothers have also been taught to stuff envelopes and to make deliveries within the building and Snider said the JCC is “looking into having the kids wipe tables and cleanup in the JCC café.”
“It’s like functional academics,” Snider said. “They are learning to function and making eye contact [with others] and saying hello when making a delivery. What comes naturally to us doesn’t come naturally to them. These are skills they can learn at the JCC and then transfer them to school and the house … and a job.”