Through research, doctors have developed a better understanding of autism. It’s estimated that 55,000 Pennsylvanians are living with the disorder. There may be more awareness, but there are not enough resources.
“I think he’s still happy, but I think he feels he’s missing out on stuff,” Nicholas’ dad, Larry Gallaher said.
Nicholas Gallaher was diagnosed with autism in 2012. He’s been at Soaring Heights School in Clearfield for three years.
“It’s really been a life saver,” said Jennifer Gallaher, Nicholas’ mom. “The routine and the teachers and the teacher’s aides have just been a saving grace. He’s progressed so much since then.”
“It’s amazing,” said Nicholas’ sister, Taylor. “He’s a whole different person.”
But Nicholas will soon be 18-years-old and time is running out.
“It’s absolutely terrifying to me to know that the opportunities won’t be as available to him when he turns 21,” said his other sister, Korynn.
The Soaring Heights School has four campuses where teachers use curriculums individualized to each student.
“One’s socialization, one’s communication and one’s the behavioral aspect,” said SHS Clearfield’s Program Director Lauren Rieg. “We really focus on their goals – specific goals – from day to day and whatever they need to work on.”
Plus, it prepares them for the day these opportunities disappear.
“I can’t believe that once he’s 21 like just so many options disappear when you turn into an adult with autism,” Jennifer said.
At 21, they can apply for state benefits through the Bureau of Autism Services, the Department of Public Welfare and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
“The caseworker then will provide them with all the services in the state of Pennsylvania that are available to their child when they turn 21,” said Director of Autism Services Nicole DeArmitt.
There’s a waitlist for those services, however, and the list will only get longer.
By 2030, studies project there will be more than 73,000 Pennsylvanians diagnosed with autism.
“All special needs parents hope they live exactly one day longer than their child just because I don’t know the situation,” Jennifer said. “I don’t know how to plan for that even.”
There are a few day programs and vocational opportunities for adults with autism in the Clearfield and State College areas, like at Goodwill warehouses and C&J Packaging.
Soaring Heights is trying to be proactive. They want to start an early intervention preschool for kids with autism.
“If you get an early grasp on it, you’re more likely to integrate them back and that’s what our ultimate goal is, is to integrate them back so they can be successful in their home school districts,” Rieg said.
But for families with older kids who are about to phase out of the system they’re just fighting to not be forgotten.
“It’s not just taking care of little kids and getting them services and school,” Jennifer said. “You have to find something to do with them when they’re not a little kid anymore. And that’s a big concern, too.”
Like all kids with autism, Nicholas needs structure. Without is, his parents say he would just play video games all day. One activist group compiled this study. You can see a county-by-county report of the number of people living with autism. The group hopes it will catch the attention of lawmakers in Harrisburg. You can see that report here: http://www.paautism.org/in-PA/Pennsylvania-Autism-Census