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In World of Autism, Ignorance Hurts

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Picture of the article's author, Lenore SkenazyWhen Paul Halvatzis of Queens received Communion, his family couldn't have been happier. Slowly he walked back to his seat, methodically chewing the wafer.

"You can't do that!" hissed a parishioner, incensed he didn't consume the wafer at once. "No, you don't understand," Paul's younger brother hissed right back. "He's autistic!" And that, more or less, is what the families of children with autism go through day after day: An awkward incident, a disapproving onlooker and, sometimes, the chance to explain what's going on.

That kind of family life seems like an unbearable cross. Yet the parents of autistic children - and there are an estimated 22,000 such kids in New York City - rise, often exhausted, to the occasion.

With any luck, and 25,000 explanatory brochures, things may get a little easier come Sunday. That's when the Mets host their third Autism Awareness Day, a day dedicated to the 1 in 166 children suffering from an autistic disorder, and their families.

"I don't think a lot of people understand what a parent goes through, day to day, having an autistic child," says Paul Halvatzis, the Communion boy's dad. "When you see kids with autism, there's not a 'look,' like Down syndrome. So people wonder why this little boy is crying." Or flapping. Or throwing a tantrum, even though he's 9, or 12, or 17.

The answer is that autism is a mysterious disease with no known cause or cure that affects the development of normal social and communication skills. Some children with autism speak little or not at all, which may be why they throw tantrums instead.

"Any one of us, if we're not getting our point across, can lose it," points out Joanne Buccellato of Floral Park, Queens. Same thing with people with autism. "Their behaviors are not very becoming, but they are a form of communication."

When Joanne's son Christian was 5 and going on his very first overnighter with his autism group, she had no idea if he was happy, scared or even aware of what was happening, since he couldn't communicate. It wasn't until late that night that she found out.

"It was both an up moment and a down moment," she recalls now, years later, because the chaperon called to say her son was sobbing for mommy.

"It was 'down' because he was unhappy. But until that moment I wasn't quite sure he realized who I was," says Joanne. His desperate wail proved he did. Families like Joanne's need the kind of hope that comes from knowing more research is going into autism's cause and cure. And they need understanding. It seems like very little to ask when every day they are doing so much. For info go to or call (718) 7-AUTISM, ext. 1059.

Originally published on April 12, 2005

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