Lauterborn Blog Search

Friday, June 17, 2011

IDEA Center Offers Autistic Adults Support and Opportunity

IDEA Center Offers Autistic Adults Support and Opportunity
By Mike Lauterborn
(front page of June 16 Fairfield Sun)

Bridgeport, CT – What happens when autistic children become adults? It is an intimidating question that families of adults with autism face every day. The reality is that there are very few services to assist adults with even mild autism, and very few opportunities for them to further their education, work and socialize – in short, to live full, productive lives.

To address the situation, Monroe resident Pat Paniccia founded IDEA for Autism, Inc. and a dedicated private facility at 515 Washington Avenue in Bridgeport. At an open house hosted Sunday evening, June 5, she spoke about her inspiration, outlined programming and introduced clients and associates that shared related stories.

Clearly a need

“I had always been on family services boards and involved with Easter Seals, and have friends with grandchildren that have autism,” said Paniccia. “In talking with them, I learned their major concern was that, after 21, no services are available. Services are only federally mandated until 21, unless the person graduates at 18, then services end. And in Fairfield County, there was nothing to serve autistic adults. On top of this, the medical community had forecasted that 500,000 autistic young adults will graduate from high school and be without programs in the next five to ten years.”

Adopting the acronym IDEA, which stands for Individual Development and Education for Autism, Paniccia founded the non-profit in April 2008 with a mission to provide services for young adults and adults on the autism spectrum. Initially, she rented the Washington Avenue property, a three-level private home converted to house classrooms and administrative offices, then bought it in December 2010. Established to serve all of Fairfield County, it currently accommodates 10 adults from areas that include Shelton, Stratford, Fairfield, Bridgeport, Norwalk and Westport. Eight clients are male and the age range among all is mid-20s to mid-50s.

“No two people with autism are the same,” said Paniccia. “They range from high functioning individuals with Asperger’s Disorder, characterized by social and behavioral challenges, to being non-verbal and unable to communicate. Because of the wide range of needs, programming here is individualized.”

Upon registering, initial clients were evaluated by IDEA’s team of clinicians, which include two psychologists, two occupational therapists, a nutritionist/cook, a physical trainer, a career counselor and a special education teacher.

A big draw was the cooking program IDEA offered. “To clients, it seemed like a simple starting point or activity,” said Paniccia. “But to us, it represented the opportunity to get them to socialize, work as a team, learn about nutrition, find independence and form friendships. And what we would cook we would then serve and they would eat together.”

A success story

When clients were not cooking, they were meeting with the various team members as necessary or desired, to work toward their objectives. This included partaking in instruction on integrated job/career counseling, resume writing, interviewing skills, role-playing in an office environment, social skills and independent living.

A good illustration of how the program has served its clients is Richard Hudson, 36, who wanted to go back to college for a computer science degree, find a girlfriend and land a best friend. “He met with the psychologist and the career counselor,” said Paniccia. “The job coach walked him through an application process at Housatonic Community College, to help him successfully enroll in a math program, which he just completed. Now he’s applying for another course in September.”

She continued, “With regard to his romantic interests, Richard met with the psychologist, who assisted him with correct social behavior. The men, as a group, meet to talk about men’s stuff, like romantic and social relationships, too. In this area as well, Richard has succeeded in attaining a girlfriend, whom he’s been seeing for a couple months.”

“In addition to those achievements,” Paniccia said, “he has landed a volunteer position at Bridgeport Public Library. These are huge steps for him. When he first came to us, his face was buried in a book, he interacted very little and wasn’t on time. We used to have to call him constantly to motivate and remind him. Now he gets himself up on time and gets himself to classes and his job on time. His girlfriend lives in Hartford and he coordinates travel there by bus himself.”

Fellow advocates

Attending IDEA’s open house and speaking about her related experience with autism was Dr. Laura Lustig, founder of The New Learning Therapy Center in Southport, author of “Attics in the Mind” and mother of an adult with autism. She addressed the gathering, which numbered about 50 parents, supporters and local community representatives, including Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch.

“Family is the basic building block for a young person and, for an average family, this is a given,” she said. “But what happens when a baby is born that doesn’t respond to its mother and is developmentally stunted? The family needs to consider the complications of raising a disabled child. Families can become overwhelmed. Pat has created an extended family that helps autism students in need.”

Lustig said the incidence and prevalence of autism has increased dramatically, to 1 in 110 births. “The economic impact is huge,” she said. “It’s imperative that changes be made to accommodate needs. There have been many improvements made in special needs populations, but little has been done to meet needs when they become adults. They need the support of the whole community to lead productive lives.”

Lustig added that when she wrote her book, she felt that she was speaking for other families like hers, and wanted as normal a life for her son Jessie, now 48, as possible. “My book tells about our struggles overcoming impediments and Jessie’s devotion to family, which has brought out the best in us.”

Lustig wished IDEA has been around when her son was graduating from high school. “It would have lessened our family turmoil and helped him assimilate into society,” she said.

Mayor Finch recognized the critical nature of the program and the fellow support of Congressman Jim Himes’, who helped the organization get a $225,000 grant. “Do the math,” he said. “If 1 in 110 is diagnosed with autism, in a city of 145,000, that’s 14,500 people that could have the condition,” he said. “I’m proud to have IDEA in Bridgeport and glad to have Congressman Himes’ help. The productiveness of IDEA’s clients is a boost to our economy. No more segregating, no more institutionalizing. It’s all about helping people live a complete life. IDEA is a great fit for this city. I’m so proud of the Paniccias.”

As for Pat Paniccia, the experience has led her on a fulfilling new journey. “This has been life-altering for me, and I’m happy to see all the progress that’s been made in a year through our services.”


Nowhere to turn… until IDEA

A Bridgeport resident, IDEA for Autism client Richard Hudson has high-functioning autism. He tells a sad tale that brightened dramatically when he found the organization, a non-profit helping autistic adults.

“I was raised in New York City, and began to have issues in 4th grade,” he said. “My school did not have a program for someone of higher-than-normal intelligence with behavioral problems due to lack of social skills. I was placed in a class with emotionally disturbed children – psychopaths, sociopaths, abused children and abusers – and became ‘prey’. I was bullied and persecuted.”

In junior high school, he was placed in a similar situation and, by the time he reached high school, he had essentially given up and wanted to quit. “Teachers just didn’t know what to do with me,” he said.

“When I was 24, my mother and I were living in an illegal apartment due to lack of work opportunities, and the place caught fire,” he said. “We became homeless.”

Through Dan Gilbride, an autism advocate, Hudson started to receive services from the Dept. of Mental Health. Social worker Jackie DeCoit also went “above and beyond the call of duty.” Hudson connected to the Kennedy Center, too, though they didn’t have the help he needed, he said.

“I spent years calling agencies and groups seeking help, without avail, until IDEA, which I found online,” he said. “I became one of the first members of the program. It helped me immensely. I had someplace to go every day, started dressing better and got help organizing my finances and loans.”

Hudson said there are a lot of people out there in the autism spectrum that would benefit from IDEA. “And every dollar given to this program will not only help the government save money by getting autistic adults off public assistance and helping them become more independent, but they will become full contributing members of society, too. This is fiscal conservatism and social liberalism at its finest.”

For more information about IDEA, visit or call 203-334-IDEA.

Yankee Doodle Fair a Dandy Time

Yankee Doodle Fair a Dandy Time:
Annual Woman’s Club Fair draws fun-seekers of all ages
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – The skies looked threatening but the rides and games were anything but. They invited participation, by kids of all ages.

Thursday, June 16 marked the first day of the four-day Yankee Doodle Fair, an annual carnival event hosted by the Westport Woman’s Club at 44 Imperial Avenue. Features included 14 rides, an International Food Court, games for small children, a raffle with a $1,000 grand prize, craft vendors and a silent auction. The Fair was scheduled to run through Sunday, June 19.

“The Woman’s Club has been hosting fairs since its inception in 1907,” said Mary Lee Clayton, event co-chair along with Dorothy Curran. “The first sought to raise funds to install some of the town’s first sidewalks. The Yankee Doodle Fair itself was initiated in 1940, to be patriotic during World War II.”

Clayton said the event is the Club’s major fundraiser, benefiting around 35 charities that it supports, along with its scholarship fund.

“In addition to our usual rides, this year we added the Staples High School Players, who will juggle, perform magic, sing and tell fortunes,” Clayton added. “This is one of the most popular events in town, attracting generations of families.”

Eight-year-old Lauren Spheeris of Westport, waiting to ride a ferris wheel, sputtered with excitement about the fair. “There are lots of fun rides, and food!”

Lauren’s mom, Karen, noted that the event had become a family tradition. “It’s easy and safe for all families, and supports a great cause,” she said.

Nearby, Westporter Carol Alexander, with daughter Maya, 7, another pair of fair veterans, said, “This is our summer kick-off. It’s good family fun, and gives us adults a chance to be kids, too, which is always welcome in this crazy world we’re living in.”

Watching her six-year-old daughter, Christina, whiz around in a bumper car, Westport resident Tina Meehan commented, “My daughter loves amusement rides and this supports a good cause… and it’s a beautiful night to be out with friends.”

Speaking on behalf of the herds of teens, that clutched oversized stuffed animals and flitted from ride to ride, Westporter Gwyneth Mulliken said, “It’s a great time and way to hang out with friends.” Joking, and effecting a voice, she added, “We going to party all night, no sleep!”

Admission to the Yankee Doodle Fair is free. Event hours: Thurs. 5-10pm, Fri. 5-10pm, Sat. Noon-10pm and Sun. Noon-5pm. $25 unlimited ride wristbands available during specific timeframes.

Chamber Passes the Gavel at Annual Meeting

Chamber Passes the Gavel 
at Annual Meeting:
Members mingle at Brooklawn Country Club
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – As the sun dipped down and cast long shadows across the fairway, a polished crowd stood on the adjacent veranda, clinked glasses and talked business.

It was the 65th Annual Meeting of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, held Wednesday evening at Brooklawn Country Club, 500 Algonquin Road. Sixty people, including members and family, came together to enjoy cocktails, a buffet dinner and the exchange of command from outgoing officers to incoming.

As jazz pianist Peter Randazzo tickled the ivories to set the evening’s tone, Chamber President and CEO Patricia Ritchie summed up the meeting’s goals. “We’re here to pass the gavel, from outgoing Chairman Andy Aziz to incoming Chairman George Szondy, and say goodbye to others that have served their time,” she said. “But our other important mission is to eat, drink and be merry. I’ve said it 100 times – we’re the fun Chamber. This is just a nice way to get together.”

Asked about the state of Fairfield’s business climate, Ritchie commented, “The community is in pretty darn good shape in comparison to other towns. You’ve got a lot of new stores, like Whole Foods Market, CVS, Chipotle Grill. And once the train station opens, that whole area is going to boom.”

Ritchie added, “On the horizon, we have Chips coming in on Black Rock Turnpike. The vacancies don’t last long.”

Incoming Chairman Szondy said his own business, Abbey Tent and Party Rentals, was going gangbusters. He looked forward to helping steer the Chamber and cited his objectives. “One is to bring in more members,” he said. “Andy had initiated efforts to ally with the BRBC (Bridgeport Regional Business Council) and Westport Chamber of Commerce. I plan to pick up on that and make it grow. And I want to recruit more members here in Fairfield.”

Szondy’s view of Fairfield is that it has a great base of businesses and is well off, but that business owners can’t just sit back and expect things to fall in their laps. “Many businesses are service oriented and have to maintain quality,” he said. “The Chamber can help fortify connections.”

Szondy’s own journey with the Chamber began about five years ago, when he joined and got involved. “You meet great people and have the opportunity to talk with other business owners about positives and negatives,” he said.

Incoming First Vice Chairwoman Rose Corr, in the Law Offices of David H. Dworski, was eager to support Szondy and learn the ropes from him with regard to becoming Chair in 2012. In her view, “Fairfield’s business climate is holding and, if everyone can stay strong, by the close of 2012 things will be on the up and up.”

Outgoing Chair Aziz, President/CEO of Payzone, reflected on his tenure. “The past year was challenging,” he said. “I’m very passionate about creating commerce for the members. My main accomplishment was the alliance with the BRBC. It was driven by the comment that many of the same people are at Chamber functions. More members equates to wider networking and business opportunities.”

Serving up a spoonful of advice to Fairfield businesses at large, Aziz said, “If you want to increase your business, you can’t hide. You have to meet more people to see results. My job was to create opportunities for businesses – I feel I did a good job of that.”

Campbell Taft: The Inspiring Story of a Young Cancer Survivor

Campbell Taft: The Inspiring Story of a Young Cancer Survivor:
Tot battles brain cancer 
and “beats it up”
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Stratford, CT – To see the healthy blond-haired lad now, you would never know the challenges he had endured and how close he had come to the unthinkable.

Just shy of this third birthday, Stratford resident Campbell Tate is a brain cancer survivor. In fact, Friday, June 17, the day walkers will go around the clock in the battle against cancer when the 10th annual American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Stratford gets underway, marks 29 days his disease will be in remission. His mother, Sherry, will lead one of the participating teams, appropriately called Team Campbell, and make a presentation during the event’s opening ceremonies at Bunnell High School Friday evening. She took a moment to speak with Patch about Campbell’s fight and amazing spirit.

“At seven months old, in March 2009, we noticed that Campbell’s eye was twitching slightly,” said Sherry, with regard to how the long trial began. “We went to see an ophthalmologist, who did a basic exam. He suspected Campbell had an eye disorder, that was treatable and he would outgrow.”

At the same time, the specialist, Milford-based Dr. Bacall, said there was a one-percent chance that the eye condition may indicate the presence of a brain tumor and asked the family if they wanted to have an MRI performed, just to rule it out.

“I initially said no, but the doctor insisted, and the MRI was done April 2,” she said. “My husband and I just expected to go out to lunch after, but midway through the process, the team said they needed to do further exploration. We knew something was up.”

It was not until six hours later – an agonizing wait – when a brain surgeon confirmed the presence of a very sizeable brain tumor. Campbell needed surgery very soon and was immediately admitted to the Pediatric I.C.U. at Yale New Haven Hospital. “Here he was among all these sick children and he looked just fine – it was a very surreal situation,” said Sherry.

The tumor was touching both an optic nerve and his pituitary gland, which are both delicate areas. Dozens of doctors and specialists reviewed the case with regard to approaching the surgery, which was scheduled for April 7. The timing gave the family a little time to prepare, which they partly spent just enjoying some togetherness, but also planning logistics in terms of care for Campbell’s older brother, William, who was five at the time.

“We were at the hospital very early, with several friends and family members, the day of the surgery,” Sherry said. “We kissed him and handed him over, which was very hard. Ultimately, and thankfully, Campbell came through ok.”

His recovery occurred over two weeks, but the family learned only 80 percent of the tumor had been removed due to its location. Sadly, in the process, Campbell also lost sight in his left eye. Pathologists recommended leaving the remainder of the tumor alone, and just monitoring it.

Three months later, Campbell had a routine MRI that indicated the tumor had grown back to its initial size and there was now a cyst, loaded with cancer cells, attached to it. He went back for surgery in July and, again, 80 percent of the tumor was removed. However, a program of chemotherapy was also introduced, which took place every week for the next two years. During that long period, Campbell had three more surgeries, related to complications that included fluid in the cranium and infections of a central chemo line.

“He just completed his last chemo session three weeks ago and his cancer is in remission,” said Sherry. “Now he walks around so proudly saying, ‘I beat up cancer.’ He’s stronger than anyone I know and certainly stronger than me. He amazes me.”