YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – 1 in 68 children in the U.S. are now diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
It’s a concern for thousands of families here in the Valley. Options and opportunities for those families are growing, though.
Meghan Tarantino’s journey with Autism started six years ago.
“I suspected there were things earlier, but nobody was listening to my concerns,” Tarantino said.
Like many families living on the spectrum, the Tarantinos found out about their son’s diagnosis when he was two years old.
“I had no idea what it was. I hadn’t encountered it. I didn’t know anybody with it. So it was quite a shock to have this in front of us and not know what to do with it,” Tarantino said.
But that lack of knowledge served as a catalyst for Tarantino, sending her into action.
“I read read read,” Tarantino said. “I went to the library. I taught myself sign language so i could teach him. And it just kind of snowballed from there.”
Aundréa Cika with the Autism Society of Ohio said that is exactly what parents have to do.
While groups like the Autism Society can be great starting points, parents ultimately are the ones who will have to do the digging to find out what works for their child.
“The parents I’ve met with children on the spectrum– families living with a diagnosis– are some of the best advocates for their children you’ll ever meet. Because they have to be,” Cika said.
For the Tarantinos, it started with the Rich Center, then private therapies, and eventually public school.
“It’s taken me all this time, it’s been six years, to really feel like i know what i’m talking about,” Tarantino said. “But then i don’t even know what’s ahead of us yet. Because i don’t have a fifteen-year-old, I have an eight-year-old. I haven’t even gotten that far yet.”
And for many parents, what lies ahead is one of the scariest parts of life on the spectrum.
Here in the valley, the number of resources and opportunities is growing for all age groups. Jen Gonda is a doctoral student in special education at Kent State.
She runs Circle of Friends.
“It’s a group that brings children with disabilites and children without disabilities together into the community for different events to really facilitate friendships and build relationship skills,” Gonda said.
Gonda’s group gives younger kids and teenagers a chance to go out and do the things their same-aged peers are doing.
Gonda also teaches at Summit Academy, which is one of Youngstown’s schools for students with autism.
Summit focuses on bringing out the strengths of students on the spectrum, students like 15-year-old Joseph Cardona.
“Nothing’s going to bring me down from my dreams. And i’m not going to let anyone or anything get in my way,” Cardona said. “Because when it comes to doing my best i am one of those guys that always keeps trying.”
But each age presents a different challenge. There are millions of adults living with a diagnosis as well. A unique opportunity for them in Northeast Ohio is Hiram Farm.
“We have some folks that come here just for some fine tuning of social skills. Maybe to sort of learn to understand the unwritten social skill rules of society. And then they move on to more independent jobs and employment settings,” Hiram Farm Executive Director DeAnn Brewer said.
Others continue to work there for years.
The farmers are responsible for caring for all the animals and produce on the farm. Then, they get to keep whatever profits are made.
Brewer said for many people on the spectrum, it’s a perfect fit.
While workshops offer an outlet for some adults on the spectrum, the farm lets people like Joe Persavich follow his passion.
“This is right up my alley. I love being outdoors. Doing gardening. Being with animals. All kinds of stuff here,” Persavich said.
And it’s finding those perfect fits that are key for families living with a diagnosis, no matter what the age.
“With a typical child, you know they’re going to be all right,” Tarantino said. “They’re going to get to where they need to go. With a kid on the spectrum, you dont’ know that. So you have to really push. And try to compile as much information and services as you can just to get them even close to where they should be.”