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Autism Facility Work Starts $28 Million Center for School, Research

October 31, 2006

By Editorial Staff
Chicago Tribune

Work began Monday on a $28 million facility that officials say will link research on autism with educational practices for children and adults with the developmental disability.

The planned Easter Seals’ Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research at Damen Avenue and West 19th Street will be both a clinical and basic science research facility and an educational center for children and young adults from ages 3 to 21. The 87,000-square-foot facility is set to be completed in 2008, said F. Timothy Muri, president and executive officer for Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago.

Autistic children and adults often have problems with communication and emotional expression. Although behavioral management skills can help some autistic adults lead independent lives, there is no cure for the disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that approximately 1 in 166 people are autistic.

“Some have called it the polio of our time,” said James E. Williams Jr., president and chief executive officer of Easter Seals international headquarters, at the groundbreaking.

While many other facilities for autistic children are retrofitted classrooms or offices, the center was designed to address the unique needs of those with autism, said Stephen W. Porges, director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an autism researcher.

Many autistic children, for example, are hypersensitive to sound and light; the walls at the center are designed to deaden outside noises, and the windows will let indirect sunlight come in, Porges said.

The facility will be built in four phases, with a capacity of 250 autistic children and young adults in its completed state, Muri said. Children will be referred to the new facility by their school districts.

Researchers are hoping to find a genetic marker for autism, which is four times more common in boys than in girls, to determine how the disorder works physiologically. Scientists do not have a biological test for the disorder and must use behavioral tests and history to make a diagnosis, Porges said.

Additionally, clinicians and teachers will have the opportunity to learn about autism through training and observation of the children at the school.

Most clinicians have limited exposure to autistic children before coming in contact with them at a clinic, Porges said. Researchers will be able to use the school “as a portal to train professionals to be familiar with autistic children,” he said.

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