With the stated dream of
someday curing autism--a disease being diagnosed in rapidly increasing
numbers--Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago on Thursday announced plans
to build a $24 million school and research center on 3.4 acres of land
donated by the city.
Organizers say the 86,000-square-foot facility at Damen Avenue and 13th
Street will be the first of its kind in the U.S. to integrate
education, academic research, early intervention programs and training
to prepare patients for work and independent living.
see the Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research as a way to
foster interaction between scientists who work on autism and service
providers who can apply their findings to clinical practice and
education. The facility will be run in collaboration with researchers
at the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago and
Rush University Medical Center.
"No one has attempted to do
something of this scale before. But it's timely, it's needed, and it's
altogether unique," said Stephen W. Porges, director of the Brain-Body
Center at UIC and a leading researcher into the causes and treatment of
Autism is an incurable, lifelong developmental
disability affecting social interactions. Children and adults with the
disease find it difficult or impossible to relate to other people in a
meaningful way. They may show repetitive patterns of behavior or body
movements and often have some degree of mental retardation.
disease has been said to affect an estimated 1.5 million Americans, and
diagnoses are increasing at a rate of 10 percent to 17 percent a year,
though the numbers are a source of controversy. Autism occurs in one in
every 166 births and is four times more common in boys than in girls.
The exact cause of the condition remains a mystery, and there is no
cure. Many scientists think autism results from a complex interaction
between genetic predisposition and environmental factors.
Officials outlined their plans at Easter Seals' Therapeutic Day School,
1950 W. Roosevelt Rd., one of two Chicago-area schools where Easter
Seals currently provides educational and therapeutic services to more
than 150 children with autism. The other is in Tinley Park.
They hope to break ground on the project in the fall and said $5
million has been raised so far, including a $4 million state grant
secured by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. The Chicago City
Council has approved donation of the land, valued at $3.5 million.
Nowhere else in the country will comprehensive services for children
with autism be so well integrated at a single campus facility,
according to Easter Seals officials.
"It's being designed from
the perspective of the child and not placing the child in a facility
that's designed for something else," Porges said. "Their sensitivities
to noise, light and the basic environment are not the same. This school
takes that into account."
In the new facility, researchers will
be able to observe and evaluate individuals with autism in environments
where they learn and socialize.
The school will include
independent living residence facilities for adults with disabilities,
including but not limited to those with autism. The residence will be
filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
Other researchers said they were surprised and excited by the Easter
"I think the need for it is extreme and has been present for some
time," said Dr. Barbara Trommer, director of the Center for
Neurodevelopmental Disabilities at Evanston-Northwestern Health Care.
"The fact that the need is being recognized and addressed in such a
comprehensive fashion is a major step forward for the affected children
and their families in Chicago."
As part of a fundraising
campaign launched Thursday, Nuccio Dargento and Rocco DeFrenza, owners
of Vince's Italian Restaurant, 4747 N. Harlem Ave. in Harwood Heights,
announced a pledge of $100,000.
Dargento's son, Enzo, has autism. When he started showing signs at age
2 1/2, his father plunged deeply into denial.
"He started acting like there was nobody there. No speech. No relating.
Nothing," Dargento said. "I went through therapy myself because I felt
like I'd lost a child. I didn't know what it was. I didn't understand
Now 7, Enzo attends a program for autistic children in
Schaumburg School District 54. He has good days and bad days, but his
parents feel like they're getting their child back.
to me as Papa, rather than Daddy," Dargento said. "That's an Italian
thing. I always called my dad Papa, so I wanted my son to call me Papa."
The explosion in autism diagnoses is surrounded by tremendous confusion.
The number of diagnosed cases in Illinois schoolchildren rose to more
than 6,000 in 2003 from 322 in 1992, according to statistics compiled
by the U.S. Department of Education. During the same time period,
national special education statistics show a 657 percent increase.
Those statistics are routinely used to suggest the U.S. is experiencing
an epidemic of autism.
However, a new study by University of Wisconsin researcher Paul
Shattuck, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that special
education data are "hopelessly confounded by changing and uneven
identification reporting practices among schools and states."
Many researchers have concluded that greater awareness, improved
diagnosis and increased availability of special education services all
have affected the autism numbers.