Lowcountry forum highlights resources in autism community

Peter Gerhardt (right), education director for the New York’s McCarton School for children with autism, speaks Saturday at the second Lowcountry Autism Forum at the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theatre. Buy this photo

In the early ’90s, Lowcountry Autism Consortium Executive Director Rob Scharstein found himself navigating rough waters as he ventured to learn all that he could of the disorder that afflicted both of his sons.

Back then, resources weren’t as readily available for parents who found themselves in need of answers and support, he said.

“We constantly had to fly people in or go other places to get the care our kids needed. That was really, really difficult,” Scharstein said.

Time has been kind in the effort to raise autism awareness. But there is still more ground to be covered, Scharstein said.

In its second annual Lowcountry Autism Forum, LAC brought state, regional and national experts to Charleston on Saturday to help parents and professionals harness resources while addressing such topics as early diagnosis and treatment, the development of social skills, occupational training and long-term care planning.

LAC collaborated with MUSC’s Project Rex and Trident Academy to sponsor the forum.

Both Project Rex and Trident Academy provide treatment and other services for children on the autism spectrum.

The event featured keynote speakers Peter Gerhardt, education director for the New York’s McCarton School for children with autism, Lorri Unumb, vice president for state and governmental affairs for Autism Speaks in Columbia, and Frampton Gwynette, a pediatric psychiatrist with Medical University Hospital.

“I look forward to a time when autism is just another word,” Gerhardt said in a speech. “It’s just autism — that’s all. They’re people.”

Scharstein said almost 600 people registered for the forum, which took place at the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theatre on George Street. The event was free and open to the public.

“My passion, and the reason this was free, is I don’t ever want money to be a stumbling block for people trying to get good information,” Scharstein said. “If somebody comes in here and they don’t have a pot to pee in, how do we get them services? How do they get their child diagnosed? How do they get evaluations done? How can we help them get free services at school?”

Specialists at Medical University Hospital are developing a center that would conduct further autism research and provide necessary resources under a central mission.

Project Rex founder Gwynette said the center is referred to as the MUSC Center for the Achievement of Human Potential.

“One of the things parents tell us is that their child sees a speech therapist here, goes to school there, visits a doctor here — the illness is so complex that it requires a lot of specialists. Every time you add another specialist, there’s fragmentation. ... If you’re seeing patients together in the same spot, research builds off of that and education follows suit,” Gwynette said.

For more information, visit the Lowcountry Autism Consortium at www.lowcountryautismconsortium.org.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.

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