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Anderson Center looks to build future for those with autism

Author Abbott Brant
Date April 5, 2017

Every Thursday, the now-22-year-old Michael heads to Ronzoni Pizzeria on Violet Avenue to fold pizza boxes, so that pizzas can be delivered hot to hungry customers.

One out of every 68 children will be diagnosed with autism, according to Anderson Center Executive Director and CEO Patrick Paul. Autism Awareness Month, celebrated throughout April, sheds light on the fact that “autism is everywhere,” and the importance of making communities inviting for individuals and families impacted by it, he said.

When the Anderson Center opened in 1924, it was a center for the emotionally disturbed, according to admission administrator Colleen Contreni. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the center became fully devoted to helping those with the neurodevelopmental disorder.

Now, the Staatsburg-based center provides about 250 students with both residential and day services, Paul said. Many of them, including Michael, live on campus in one of 16 houses. Students take classes, partake in recreational activities on campus and in town, and practice vocational skills in order to create opportunities for placement in adult working programs.

“If you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism – everyone is different,” Paul said. “(Autism) is a spectrum, so you’re going to have individuals who are more involved than others. You have to treat everyone as an individual, as you would a typical person.”

Most students at Anderson have a moderate functioning level of autism, and have full scale IQs under 70, according to Contreni. When students graduate the program at 21, they are “between the second and fifth grade level at the highest,” she said, but most students are Pre-K, kindergarten, or first-grade level, and non-verbal.

Classes, like housing, are broke up first by school age – elementary, middle school or high school – and then by ability. The center accepts students as young as five. The youngest student at the center is 8.

Michael said his favorite part of Anderson is working, and he loves his job at the center where he will “wash dishes” and “fill up ice pitchers,” as well as hand out dessert to fellow students.

“They take great pride in that,” Contreni said of the center’s daily vocational tasks, citing another student that used his skills to successfully enter the working world. That student now has a full-time job at the Hannaford supermarket in Kingston, where he stocks the shelves in the can aisle and checks expiration dates.

“What we see is that if these students don’t gain these skills earlier, and don’t have that independence, they’re really lacking with being able to find any adult placement,” Contreni said.

Ronald T. said this was the main factor for making the difficult decision to put his son, Ronnie, in the residential program last June after almost five years of him being a day student.

“We had to plan for his adult future,” Ronald said, adding that if someone is not placed in a residential setting by the age they would be finishing up public education, it’s “very difficult to find adult placement down the road.”

“I cried on and off for six months,” said Ronald’s wife Laurie. “But we knew it was time.”

Ronald said for the short time his son been full time at the center, the “amount of things they’ve gotten him to do is amazing,” including cleaning and making his bed. Those tasks are ones many take for granted, but Ronnie had never done before. Despite living only 20 minutes from the center and visiting Ronnie every week, Ronald compares the emotional impact of 21-year-old Ronnie leaving home to “sending a toddler to college.”

“You don’t feel like you’re sending an adult off. To send them anyway, it’s a big deal. You’re putting the most vulnerable people in the care of others,” he said.

This is Ronnie’s last year as a student in the program, and Ronald knows prompt placement into an adult program is not certain. But students are never pushed out if there is no immediate adult program for them to enter, he said — they stay at the center, participating in occupational training and recreational activities, until a placement can be made.

“The goals here are to integrate as many individuals as possible into the community,” Paul said. “To give them the skills to be part of the community, and make sure they have a quality life in the end.”

Abbott Brant: abrant@poughkeepsiejournal.com, 845-437-4809, Twitter: @AbbottBrantPoJo