There’s Nothin’ Better Than A Good Old Fashion’ Friend

The latest report released by the ????????CDC indicating one in 68 8-year- olds has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has everyone talking. This 30% increase since 2012 tells me that every elementary classroom probably has one child on the spectrum.  Looking back to Ryan’s preschool and elementary years in the mid-1990s this certainly was not the case.  Yes, there were children with ASD and significant cognitive challenges in public schools, but typically they were in special education classrooms.  Today, most children are included in regular education.

Even with a growing number of children with autism in our schools, I hear from many group fishparents who are concerned  that their child has few friends.  This is an issue that Ryan and I experienced throughout his educational career.  Children with ASD face many challenges including isolation from their peers.  Having friends to help them through difficult times can boost their self-esteem, enhance their social skills and protect against bullying.

As this is Autism Awareness Month I wanted to share my thoughts on how to be a friend to someone with autism.

As a parent I encourage you to:

  • Create a culture of acceptance within your family
  • Encourage your child to play with children who are different than he/she (culturally, differently abled)
  • Be proactive and initiate a playdate with a child with ASD.
  • Help a child with ASD by including him/her or simply hanging out one-on-one watching how you interact with people will help the child learn the rules for friendship and make it easier to develop friendships with others.

As we continue to celebrate Autism Awareness Month let’s establish a goal of creating and nurturing new friendships with people with ASD.

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How Do Thirty Million Words Affect Your Child?

Dana Suskind MD - Thirty Million Words

Dana Suskind, MD (photo courtesy of Thirty Million Words Initiative website)

Did you know that by age 4 children living in poverty had heard 30 million fewer words than their counterparts in more advantaged families? This finding led Dana Suskind, M.D. to establish the “Thirty Million Words” Initiative to close the achievement gap and give children the best start in life.  In this home-based program parents learn to enhance their home language environment utilizing an interactive multimedia curriculum.  PNC announced at its recent Grow Up Great 10th anniversary celebration in Chicago, a $19 million initiative supporting early childhood language development.  This grant will include a five year longitudal study to determine the effectiveness of the Thirty Million Words initiative by following between 200 – 250 Chicago children from 15 months of age to kindergarten.


Nick Scott, Jr.

In our own state of Pennsylvania the success of every child is one of top economic priorities. Therefore, Pennsylvania established the Early Learning Investment Commission to build a private/public partnership of business leaders to advocate for quality early childhood education investment.  We are fortunate to have local entrepreneur Nick Scott, Jr. lending his expertise to the commission.  This morning he joined us to celebrate National Week of the Young Child by reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See, by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle to our students.  It’s very encouraging to see that our business leaders are acknowledging that the future of our city, state and nation is based upon quality early childhood education.

Please share your ideas on how we can expand the network of business champions who understand the connection between early childhood learning experiences and a strong economy.

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Celebrating the Week of the Young Child

LTRR_8018ast week I had the honor of attending PNC Grow Up Great’s tenth anniversary in Chicago. This week marks the Week of the Young Child.  Both of these events focus public attention on the needs of our children under 5 and their families and recognize the essential role of early childhood programs.  In 2004, PNC recognized the importance of these early years and committed $100 million to prepare America’s youngest children to be ready for kindergarten.  In the last ten years that commitment grew to $350 million with 2 million children served and 39,000 employees participating.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) began the “Week of the Young Child” I am the future paradeover 40 years ago in recognition that the early childhood years lay the foundation for children success in school and later in life. Today we know that for every dollar spent on high-quality early education, society stands to gain up to $16 in long-term savings.  Why? Because we know that children who participate in quality early childhood education are more likely to graduate from high school, avoid drugs and incarceration and go on to own their own homes, cars and savings accounts.

What can you do to support the “Week of the Young Child” and early childhood education?

  • Volunteer at the children’s section in the library.A father reading to his children
  • Read to a young child in your life.
  • Make your legislators aware of the importance of early childhood education for the success of our country.
  • Host a book club for parents and young children.
  • Tutor a child at a local school.
  • Check out Sesame Street’s new Muppet, Buzz Word, who is promoting “Words Are Here, There And Everywhere” a bilingual vocabulary program.
  • Stop by a PNC branch and pick up a “Words That Help Me Grow” vocabulary tree poster.
  • Explore the PNC Grow Up Great website which offers a new online lesson center featuring early education lesson plans.

On Thursday I will share with you information on Thirty Million Words, a multi-million dollar language development initiative supported in part by a $19 million grant from PNC.

Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.  ~ Maria Montessori, Italian Physician and Educator

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See Amazing In All Children – Sesame Street Style


Photo Credit: Sesame Workshop

On World Autism Day Sesame Workshop announced its latest initiative “See Amazing in All Children.” Partnering with Autism Speaks, this new venture will aim to increase understanding, reduce stigma and demonstrate the commonalities that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) share with other children. In


Sesame Street – Abby Cadabby

addition, the workshop will also develop tools and resources for families of children with ASD to help reduce the stress of everyday routines such as getting dressed, brushing teeth and interacting with peers.  Digital media tools featuring Sesame Street characters will assist parents in breaking down these routines into simple steps.  One of our Sesame Street favorites, Abby Cadabby, kicked off the initiative along with Autism Speaks

Sesame Street

Sesame Street – Elmo

cofounders Suzanne and Bob Wright by lighting the Empire State Building blue.

All of us parents of children with ASD and other disabilities have experienced challenges when our children are not accepted by their peers. Often it is a lack of understanding about the disability that causes fear and uncertainty, which can lead to isolation and exclusion.  I’m hopeful that Sesame Street’s “See Amazing in All Children” initiative will lead to greater understanding and thereby acceptance and inclusion with their peers and the community at large.  As I said in my op-ed, it is important to support an inclusive community by welcoming people with ASD to your events, health clubs, churches and schools. This can only be a win / win opportunity for the person with autism and for all of us.


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Recognizing Three Ground Breaking Developments in Autism Research on World Autism Day


I wrote an op-ed piece for the Erie News Times and I wanted to share it with you.

As communities around the globe prepare to celebrate World Autism Day, we look back on a year that has been unprecedented in advancing the diagnosis and treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). More and more studies continue to make headlines as we build upon a foundation of knowledge established over the last twenty years. As the Autism Speaks chief science officer states, “When it comes to scientific discovery in autism research it just keeps getting better and better.”  I would like to share a few ground breaking developments in the areas of eye gaze, folic acid and technology.

With one in 68 children diagnosed with ASD, many parents are asking the question “could

Ansley Brane, a typically-developing 5-month-old participating in eye-tracking research at Marcus Autism Center.

Ansley Brane, a typically-developing 5-month-old participating in eye-tracking research at Marcus Autism Center.

my child have autism?”  Fortunately, we no longer have to wait until a child turns preschool age to answer that question.  Reliable screening tools can be used with children as young as 12 months of age. In a new study, researchers used high tech eye tracking to discover a subtle but  consistent decline in eye contact that begins around two months of age in babies who go on to develop autism. If the initial results are confirmed, this finding would provide the earliest biomarker of ASD.   Intervention could begin earlier than ever before possible, leading to real improvements in brain development, learning and social engagement.


For years, we’ve known that taking folic acid during pregnancy played an important role in producing red blood cells and helping the fetal neural tube develop into the brain and spinal cord.  However, in 2013 we learned that maternal use of folic acid supplements around the time of conception was associated with a lower risk of autistic disorder. The findings support previous research that shows children of mothers who take folic acid in the four weeks before and eight weeks after conception had a lower risk of developing autism.


Nao, a robot used in Autism research at the Notre Dame Psychology Department’s Center for Children and Families…Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Closer to home, the Barber National Institute began collaborating with the University of Notre Dame to ensure that advances in the research lab translate to the real world of school and home.  We are examining whether including an interactive robot in therapy sessions improves the development of social skills over traditional methods. We know that many children with ASD have a natural interest in technology and are very motivated by the robot.


Preliminary results compiled in Erie and at Notre Dame indicate that a majority of children with autism are more successful learning new skills when working with the robot as compared to just a therapist.  More importantly, the children are able to generalize the skills they are learning with the robot to communicate better with their parents and other children in their lives.

We began diagnosing increasing numbers of children with autism in the early 1990s. These children are now in their early 20s and may be in college or post-secondary training programs and / or in the workforce. Unfortunately, we also know that young adults with ASD are less likely to continue their education or get a job after high school when compared to young adults with other disabilities. Only about 35% of young adults with autism attend college and only 55% have a job during the first six years after high school. Overall, they face a greater than 50% chance of being unemployed or not attending college when compared to those with other disabilities. For many families of children with autism, leaving high school is compared to falling off a cliff because of the lack of services and jobs for adults with ASD.

How can you be involved in the next wave of helping autism “keep getting better and

Ryan working

Ryan working at BNI through the TWS program.

better?”  If you are a business owner, hire a person with autism. Contact our Supportive Employment office, tell us about your job and we will find the right candidate for you. There is no expense to you and we provide a job coach to train the candidate on the job. If you are an employee, welcome and encourage diversity in your workforce. If you are a citizen, support an inclusive Erie community by welcoming people with ASD to your events, health clubs, churches and schools. This can only be a win / win opportunity for the person with autism and for all of us.


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How Are You Going To Light It Up Blue?

Light it up blue for my sonWhat are you going to do to shine a light on autism? Each April 2nd we celebrate Light It Up Blue in commemoration of the United Nations sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day. This is a unique global initiative that kicks off Autism Awareness month and helps raise awareness about autism.

sydney-opera-house1Last year more than 8,400 buildings and landmarks on all 7 continents illuminated bright blue on the evening of April 2nd. Locally the Bicentennial Tower and Mercyhurst University went blue. As I drove throughout our community it was amazing the number of families who changed their white porch lights to blue.

light-it-up-2You can register your participation with Light It Up Blue (link) and upload your photos of participation to the LIUB photo gallery. At the BNI we will be taking a Wear It Blue group photo of our students and faculty. I am going to turn my Facebook and Twitter profiles blue as a quick way to show my support for the program. Please share ways that you are showing your support for Autism Awareness Day and Month.



Fun Ideas:

  • #LIUB your photos and comments on FB and Twitter
  • Incorporate blue in your attire (blue scarf, shirt)
  • Add the LIUB logo to your website
  • Register for a local community autism awareness event




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Time To Get Your Game Face On

Maureen & Ryan with Beast

Me, the Beast and Ryan at the 2013 Beast on the Bay

Register now!  The 2nd annual Barber Beast on the Bay and Maureen Riazzi Adaptive Course for persons with disabilities will be held Saturday, September 6th at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA.  The adaptive, 1.2 mile course begins at Beach 1 and includes 6 obstacles.  You can walk, run or wheel your way to the finish line.  This course is designed for everyone!  Participants must be 16 years of age or above.  You can bring a course buddy if you want or compete by yourself.  There is no fee for the course buddy.  Check out the photos from last


2013 Adaptive Course Obstacle

year’s adaptive course.  Registration is only $25.00.  All participants receive a medal and a t-shirt.  Sign up now as there is only 165 days to register.

We are excited to have 700 competitors from 14 states already registered for the Beast.  It is sure to be a huge success.  Ryan described last year’s race as “awesome” and is looking forward to this year.  Last year we had 70 participants compete in the Riazzi Adaptive Course and we hope to double the number this year.  Help us reach our goal!

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