Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Autism Center Gives Parents Reason to Celebrate in Pittsburgh

What started as one mother's drive for information about her son's development has turned into a growing community resource. And the photo above, taken last week AutismLink's holiday party, is a symbol of that success. More than 150 people, families with a child on the autism spectrum, gathered at the Center for Creative Play in Pittsburgh. (See an online photo gallery of the party here.) It's one of several events that Cindy Waeltermann, director of AutismLink, organizes just for these families. Past outings have included a day at a fishing pond, a "pumpkin trolley" ride in the fall, a movie theater with spaces for kids to take trampoline breaks. She also has arranged special offers for passes to a zoo and sporting events.

But that's just the beginning. Last month, Waeltermann and AutismLink opened the Autism Center of Pittsburgh, which offers a place where families can get services for children including medical evaluations, occupational and speech therapy, and information about resources. (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered the opening in an article you can read here. Note the familiar platform swing in the accompanying photo.)

"We want to do as much as we can to help these kids. We're going to constantly expand, as much as we can. There's tons of needs out there," Waeltermann told me in an interview. She says her vision for growing services extends to autistic teens and adults.

The concept that Waeltermann has come up with is simple but powerful: she finds a way to provide the space -- in this case, in a medical office building in the North Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Then she brings practitioners in for office hours. Parents bring their children to the new hub she's created. Most of the services offered are covered by medical insurance or Medicaid. In the first four weeks since it opened in November, 47 families signed up for O.T. and other appointments.

"The demand is huge and eventually we're going to need to expand. In Pittsburgh, the bigger [autism] diagnostic centers have a six- to eight-month waiting list. We got independent diagnosticians so we can do it without a wait," Waeltermann said.

That kind of waiting list is what got Waeltermann to get going on her own efforts. She is mother of two boys with autism and grew frustrated with the lack of information available about what to do and where to do it.

AutismLink started about five years ago as a website, run by Waeltermann, which provides news and information about events and research, and also sells discounted kits to help parents' groups put on conferences and fundraising events. These materials have proven so popular that proceeds from their sales have provided some funds to help open the Center in North Hills and a second center in New Kensington.

Waeltermann says she has heard from a number of families beyond Pittsburgh, asking her when she will bring a new autism center to their area. She said she's interested in doing more. Right now, though, she has to act as a receptionist.

"I had always wanted to start something like this," she said. "You're carting your kid here and there, and I thought, wouldn't it be great if everything was in one place?"

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