Small organizations give parents of aging autistic children big hopes -- Gazette.Net


Sidhant Sawant sat on a couch in the Lakelands Clubhouse during a recent Friday night, rocking back and forth, grinning ear to ear and clenching his hands underneath his gaping mouth.

Five minutes before, the 14-year-old got a strike on Xbox Kinect bowling.

He was still too excited to sit still.

Normally, his mother, Sanyogeeta Sawant of Bethesda, would be worried about his less than “typical” behavior, she said.

At these new social outings, when Sawant is surrounded by children with similar disabilities and parents who understand, she said she doesn’t have to.

Montgomery County has few places where teens and young adults with developmental disabilities such as autism can interact with children who have and who don’t have the disabilities in a casual, non-scripted setting. As a result, a few local residents who run small nonprofit organizations are ramping up their programming.

Tom and Natalie Liniak of Gaithersburg and Whitney Ellenby of Bethesda, the founders of Sports Plus and Autism Ambassadors, respectively, created the outings after realizing how little was available for their young sons as they grew older and how important it was they continued to have social interaction. Both have young boys with autism; the Liniaks’ son is 14; Ellenby’s son is 12.

Many people think high school meets the social needs of teens with autism, but that isn’t enough, Natalie Liniak said.

“The social component disappears, and they do become more isolated. And in my opinion, socialization is a very important piece within their development,” she said.

The Sawants attended the second night out for Sports Plus, which is a nonprofit in Gaithersburg that provides sports, camps and social programs for children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Sports Plus is now conducting one night out every two weeks for teens with developmental disabilities, to provide a casual outing where participants can “have a space of their own,” Natalie Liniak said.

Ellenby, who has been offering her events specifically for people with autism for six years, said she just recently registered her venture as a nonprofit organization, after realizing the demand and cost for the programming.

She presents four events a month for different age groups at different locations such as gymnastic centers and water parks. She can now count on having about 300 participants a month.

“We need a space of our own where parents don’t have to apologize, and the kids can be themselves,” Ellenby said.

Both Ellenby and the Liniaks want their events low-key and low-cost; these families are used to paying big bucks for structured therapy programs.

Sports Plus nights out are about $15; Ellenby charges about $5.

Sawant and Anne Schott, another parent at the Sports Plus event, said they appreciate how little the organizations are charging.

Most of the therapies that Schott’s son is involved in cost more than $25 an hour, and they are focused on learning specific skills.

Sports Plus, she said, is more about having fun while learning.

Andrew Egel, a University of Maryland professor, said these activities are beneficial, especially when they give participants the chance to interact with “typical” peers; that is, other children who do not have developmental disabilities.

Clear evidence shows that those with autism can learn how to behave socially when interacting with typical peers, said Egel, an expert in the behavior and education for those with autism.

Either way, attending an event is better for the participants than sitting at home, which often happens, he said.

Ann Gibbons, executive director for the D.C.-area chapter of the national awareness organization Autism Speaks, can list off a few other organizations providing social events, such as Potomac Community Resources, Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children and the Jewish Social Service Agency.

Montgomery County’s recreation department also offers therapeutic recreation programs, such as organized dances.

Kids Enjoy Exercise Now of the Greater D.C. Region, or KEEN, offers sports programs for children and young adults ages 5 to 25.

Tom Rowse, whose 12-year-old son, Cush, attends Ellenby’s activities, said he and other parents are very thankful for what she is providing, since it is so low-cost and casual.

Rowse said he can tell Cush loves the events and feels comfortable there. As a parent, he said the events help him feel comfortable, too.

“When kids act out — when they make a noise or something — everyone just looks and smiles,” he said. “They understand. That, in its own right, is something that is very comforting to adults and the caregivers — that other people understand, and that it is normal.”

From the hallway of the Lakelands Clubhouse on the Friday in April, you could hear bursts of laughter, clapping and yelping.

Inside the room, about 18 kids and about as many volunteers played Xbox, basketball, hockey table games and marbles.

What appeared to be unorganized fun was actually very intentional and very therapeutic, Tom Liniak said.

In between turns, Sawant touted to his mother and others how he got not one strike — but two.

“I’m good at bowling,” he said.