My wife, Ellen, and I have a special child. At age 51, Ricky is nonverbal and as much of a child to us as he was decades ago. Having been a special education teacher enlightened me about many of the challenges facing children with special needs. But it was becoming Ricky's parent that changed my life. I discovered the blessings of being a parent of a special child. No matter how much Ellen and I put into our relationship with Ricky, we always get more back - just as we do with all those we've come to know through our work with organizations such as AHRC, United Cerebral Palsy, Angela's House and Family Residences and Essential Enterprises. I'm proud to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. What could be more important than helping children and adults with special needs have a positive quality of life and reach their full potential?
Twenty-five years ago autism was an extremely rare condition; now it is the leading disabling disease of children in the United States. That is why I crafted legislation directing the Commissioner of Health to establish a program for the early screening of toddlers for autism spectrum disorders. I also spearheaded the successful effort to prohibit the administration of immunizations or vaccines containing mercury -- a known neurotoxin that some scientists believe may cause autism.
Many children with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum are able to attend public schools, but often require special education classes. In 2006, I introduced a bill, later signed into law, requiring anyone applying for a license as a special education teacher or school administrator to complete course work in the needs of children with autism. That same year, I wrote legislation allowing mental health facilities to conduct nationwide criminal history checks of employees.
After learning that Long Island lacked a facility to care for medically fragile children - those requiring around-the-clock care - I secured funding to build Angela's House in East Moriches. Angela Policastro was born with severe brain damage and spent her short life in a facility in Connecticut - the closest place to her parents' Nassau County home. When Angela died at 14 months, her parents vowed that no other family should have to endure the pain of placing a child so far from home. The beautiful seven-bed Angela's House opened in 2000. In 2005, Angela's House II was opened in Smithtown in Nassau County.
Very special to me is the hugely successful Surf Pals program. Growing by leaps and bounds, Surf Pals enables children with autism and other developmental disabilities, accompanied by trained surfers, to experience the thrill and freedom of riding the waves. Seeing the joy on the faces of the children is an unforgettable experience.
Harvey Weisenberg Resource Centers
When several organizations got together to create a one-stop source of information, assistance, resources, training and guidance for New York families dealing with autism or other developmental disabling conditions, I was deeply honored to learn that they named them the Harvey Weisenberg Resource Centers. The Centers can be reached at 212-947-0775 (Manhattan) and 866-314-7959 (Long Island Center).