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North Neighborhoods
Wesley Institute program taps world of art, music for youngsters with autism

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

By Brad Stephenson

Marla Green loves her 4-year-old son, John Jr., unconditionally.

Still, she can't help but feel a swell of frustration and sadness when she sees children her son's age playing and interacting while John Jr. stands at the edge of the playground, lost in his own world.

John Jr., who lives with his parents in Lower Burrell, is one of about 1.5 million Americans living with autism, a developmental disability that can cause severe impairment in language, cognition and communication.

"I watched a neighbor kid who is John's age ride his bike up the street for the first time, and I was happy for him," said Green. "But at the same time, I can't help but wonder whether John will ever ride a bike."

John Jr. is part of a trend: The number of children diagnosed with mental and behavioral health issues has increased at an alarming rate over the past several years. According to a 2001 Surgeon General's report, three in 10 children suffer from mental health disorders, including autism, and four out of five of them never receive treatment. The rate of autism and other types of childhood mental disorders is expected to continue rising.

The Wesley Institute Inc., a nonprofit organization, provides more than 700 youngsters and their families with specialized services for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. The institute serves families throughout Western Pennsylvania at several sites, including the Wesley Institute Family and Child Development Center on William Penn Highway in Richland.

The facilities offer typical educational, behavioral health and residential services, as well as more progressive programs, according to Wesley chief executive officer Doug Muetzel.

"Parents of children with mental health barriers are informed and aggressive in their efforts to get the best treatment available for their kids," Muetzel said. "We are responding to the interest of the parents."

According to Muetzel, two features of the North Hills facility are the music and art therapy programs, which use creative tools to enhance learning and development, and to encourage cooperation and interaction.

It was during one of Wesley's music therapy programs that John Jr. spoke his own name for the first time.

"John was pretty much nonverbal last year," Green said. "To hear him speak his name was overwhelming, because a lot of these children never acquire verbal language skills."

The institute, headquartered in Upper St. Clair, has had to seek private support for these programs.

"State funding is often behind [in supporting] the most progressive services," Muetzel said. "The government won't provide funding for programs like music and art therapy, but families find these services important."

Though the Wesley Institute, founded in 1965, helps children with all types of mental and behavioral barriers, Muetzel said the new facilities are specifically geared to children diagnosed with autism -- or Autistic Spectrum Disorder, as it is more formally know.

Autism is hard to define -- the Autism Society of America's Web site describes it only as "a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life" -- but people with autism typically have problems with communication and social interaction.

While the institute will continue to offer in-home services for children with mental and behavioral health barriers, Muetzel said the new "center-based" strategy offers a number of advantages, allowing the use of the latest treatments and greater support for families.

"Because the children we serve are typically younger, the role of the family is critical in treatment," Muetzel said. "These facilities provide a meeting place for these families who share the same interests and the same goal."

Green said the support she and her family have gotten from Wesley has been outstanding.

"To go to a designated place where you have other families that are going through the same trials and tribulations that you are is really nice," she said.

Green is also looking forward to the services and support her 2-year-old daughter, Emily, will get as the sibling of an autistic child.

"When she gets older and starts to understand, she'll need as much support as we do."

The Wesley Institute will host an invitational golf tournament June 23 at Treesdale Golf and County Club in Pine. For more information, call Paula Huffman at 412-831-9390, ext. 219

Brad Stephenson is a freelance writer.

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