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Autism School Gives Hope to Immigrant Families

The Arab American News , News Report, Khalil AlHajal Posted: Jul 14, 2009

Editors Note: For 35 years, an autism school in Garden City, Michigan has helped families, many of whom are now increasingly immigrants, with their autistic children.

Garden City, Mich.--A child's cognitive or behavioral disorder can be a lot for a family to deal with, especially as the nation faces a load of health care and education policy issues in a period of transition and harsh times.

Immigrant communities often face extra obstacles, with cultural issues, fear of stigma and lack of awareness adding to the burden.

"I didn't even know anything about autism except for the movie Rain Man," said Sammy Cheaito, a Dearborn car salesman whose son is autistic.

He said a lack of knowledge about autism in the Arab American community could be preventing or delaying diagnoses, leaving families confused and frustrated.

Autism is a developmental disability typically appearing during the first three years of life that affects a person's ability to interact with others. According to the Autism Society of America, early signs of the disorder include a delay in spoken language, repetitive use of language or mannerisms, lack of interest in peer relationships, lack of spontaneous or make-believe play, and persistent fixation on parts of objects.

Cheaito said that after noticing his son wasn't learning to speak at a normal pace and identifying some other interactive issues, he began slowly telling his wife there may be something different about their son.

After some visits with neurologists at Children's Hospital in Detroit, the child was diagnosed with autism.

The six-year-old boy is now on a waiting list to enter the Burger School for Students with Autism.

The Garden City public school helps give autistic students from age 3 to 26 the opportunity to become "happy, healthy and productive."

Colleen Polin, the school's special events coordinator, has worked with autistic students for 33 years. She said a growing number of Arab American families are turning to the school for help.

She said a six-year-old child of Iraqi immigrants recently entered the school. An individual educational plan and the help of interpreters are providing the family with its first opportunity to address the child's unique individual needs with an enriched, attentive plan.

"We were able to meet that family's needs knowing they had no other place," Polin said. "He just is a loving, beautiful child. When he laughs, my heart lights up."

Burger School was built in 1974 as the first program in Michigan developed for autism students.

For years the school struggled to raise funds for special programs and a playground by selling pretzels and magazines, until local businessman Jack Russo and his family took the effort under their wing.

"They don't have a child in our program," said Polin. "It was really the heart of the family that saw the need and made it their mission to further help students with autism.

"They became aware of the great needs that we had in our school... We were struggling 20 years ago to build a playground... He opened his heart, he opened his funds and his family is trying to open the eyes of other people."

Today the philanthropic contributions of the Russo family and other donors have provided the school with specialized facilities including a state of the art playground, a gross motor area for the children to learn how to play and make use of equipment and an indoor play area/experience room.

"We are so appreciative of that indoor play area where our children learn some of the things they need to do," Polin said, "to interact with each other in a positive way, to play, be safe, to interact."

Each autistic student has unique areas of deficit that the school develops plans to address individually.

Continuous contributions from the Russo family and others provide for the extra resources and allow special events and performances, like puppeteers, dance troupes and ocean life exhibits.

"We must work to address all those needs to help the students reach their potential, Polin said. "Giving these children these special events give them memories that last a lifetime."

Cheaito said it was Russo who encouraged him to place his son on the school's waiting list.

"I wouldn't know about this school or this program if it wasn't for Jack Russo," he said.

He said he hopes the next generation of Arab Americans produces its own crop of Jack Russos.

"There should be a person like him in every community. The guy spends tons of money and time. We should follow his lead and help places like the Burger School."

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