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For Teachers

Autism Society of Pittsburgh president, Dan Torisky, was the recipient of the 2011 Phi Delta Kappa Lay Leadership Award this past December for his work with special educators in helping local families deal with the challenges of autism.

His son diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, Dan knows first-hand how this affliction can impact the life of the individual, the family, and the community. He has spent a life-time learning, educating others, and helping to bring about changes at local, state, and federal levels to improve the quality of life for those of all ages with autism.

The speech Dan delivered is printed below.

TEACHERS – from Day One, on Autism’s Front Line

First, an aside…I am so glad to see Allegheny Valley School represented here tonight. I have been associated with Allegheny Valley School since the early 60’s, and if the State of Pennsylvania were to adopt the philosophy, mission and purpose and operational initiatives of Allegheny Valley School, with its continuum of services, there would not be 26,000 Pennsylvanians with autism and other developmental disabilities on waiting lists for appropriate residential care, treatment and habilitation. And the savings each year would be in the tens of millions.

I am honored by this Phi Delta Kappa award as anyone who knows me can well imagine. The fact that it is an education-based award hits right at the heart of my own commitment, because, at the beginning, in the 50’s and 60’s, the prevailing position of Dr. Bruno Belleheim and his pals in psychiatry and psychology was that autism was caused pre-natally and neonatally by the negative vibrations that frigid mothers and mothers-to-be transmitted to their babies!

We parents with the Autism Society of America went through hell debunking this, and it took years, but debunk it we did. But in the meantime, when these so-called “emotionally disturbed” and “socially and maladjusted” children became of school age, only teachers, in fledgling special education classes in deteriorated buildings and basement classrooms, recognized that it was the children who had problems to be addressed, regardless of what might have caused them, and they involved the parents wherever they could. These teachers cared not about labels or the wacky hypotheses of the “experts” and began setting the standard for addressing the functional characteristics that were disabling in each given kid.

And special educators feel the same today, the same as we parents have since Dr. Bernie Rimland started the Autism Society of America in 1965 in Teaneck, NJ. This is why teachers are recognized for the highest award given by the Autism Society of America and we give it to this day … for the teacher of the year … on behalf of thousands of nominees nationwide. As far as all the accomplishments mentioned in your most generous introduction … more individuals should be standing here sharing this award than can be counted … from Mrs. Craig, may she rest in peace, and retired Special Ed Director of AIU3 Dr. Beverly School — two inspirational and innovative teachers at Electric Avenue School in East Pittsburgh – to the late Myron Cope and other local sports legends whose accomplishments in their careers are overshadowed in my mind by what their personal, behind-the-scenes efforts have done for people with sons and daughters struggling with autism and other developmental disabilities.

In my opinion, it is a matter of allowing yourself to be steered by what you perceive the Lord has put in your life that motivates you to use your gifts in the best way possible.

In my case, the motivating factor was my autistic son, Edward, joining me in my life, ultimately affecting my entire life span.

And for myself, one single contribution exceeds anything else I might have done… It was a case of using my “gift” of being able to synthesize what I learn from people like you in this room and your colleagues in the field… …and that is, the Options Policy … which I proudly claim to have written as President of the Autism Society of America in 1990.

This policy became, and has remained to this day, the policy of the Autism Society of America and its two hundred plus local chapters nationwide. And that is “that parents have a right to learn about all resources and service options and to choose those they feel are most appropriate for their family member with autism.”

When an organization or an individual adopts this policy, it is then incumbent upon them to see to it that families have information – pro and con – on every conceivable option, so their choices can then be the best informed choices. And that is what teachers and educators … and professionals in the health services fields … are asked to do by those who adopt this policy. It’s an uphill battle against the statists and protectors of the status quo, but led by the example of teachers on the frontline, it is being won … inexorably, but surely. They know that when it comes to options, the operative adjective is “most appropriate” for each student with autism. And to all professionals like you, who help people like me and the people we exist to serve, by respecting this policy, I thank you on behalf of all of us.

You know … so many of you good people and your colleagues give, and continue to give, meaning and purpose to the lives of people like me and mine. I am honored to be here among you.

Daniel A. Torisky