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Monserrate pledges $1M for autism center in Queens

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The center, the first of its kind in New York, would provide bilingual and multicultural family and patient support, advocacy preparation, professional education, basic medical attention with a reduced waiting time and recreational activities, organizers said.

"I'm a parent first so I understand what the needs of my community are in terms of children with disabilities," said Andrew Baumann, chief executive officer of New York Families for Autistic Children, or NYFAC. The Ozone Park-based non-profit will develop the center with an estimated start-up price tag of about $2.7 million.

Monserrate's pledge to secure $1 million as part of the city's capital budget, which is being hammered out right now, will get the center about one-third of the way there. The money, Baumann said, will be used to locate and renovate a building, outfit the offices with necessary equipment and technology and pay the first year's salary to employees.

Baumann said one in 166 children born today is diagnosed with some form of autism, a developmental disorder characterized by social interaction difficulties, impaired vision or hearing and repetitive behaviors.

The number of diagnoses has spiked since Baumann's own 11-year-old son was born. At the time, Baumann said, only about one in 2,500 kids was diagnosed with autism.

"(That is) an absolutely explosive rate," said Monserrate, also the father of an autistic child. "And there is not infrastructure in place either publicly or privately" to address the issue.

Pinpointing the cause of the dramatic increase in diagnoses is difficult, Baumann said. Some point the finger at childhood vaccines or environmental contaminants in the air and water. Others, however, suggest that detection techniques have simply improved, an argument Baumann doesn't buy.

"Better diagnostic criteria doesn't cut the whole cake for me," Baumann said. If diagnoses were simply becoming more accurate, then the number of children with other mental disabilities would be declining as they were reclassified as autistic, he said.

In fact, Baumann said, the diagnosis rates for mental retardation have risen 3 percent to 4 percent over the last decade, while autism rates have climbed 18 percent to 22 percent.

The new center will expand on many of the support and diagnosis services New York Families for Autistic Children already offers through its office in Ozone Park, where it receives about 4,300 visits a year.

But the new facility, which Baumann hopes to locate in a building with 5,000 to 7,000 square feet of space, will offer a more family-inclusive environment by creating facilities for parents, autistic children and normally developing siblings. He expects visits to the new center to triple during the first year.

"There's not a treatment center that caters to the family unit," Baumann said. "We need to cater to the family because the siblings are just as impacted as the parents and grandparents."

NYFAC still has to identify a location for the autism center, which it hopes to locate near mass transportation hubs, potentially in Corona, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst or Jackson Heights.

Once the organization has secured the funding and space, Baumann said, "I'm ready to go."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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