When Pam Milazzo lists the burdens that can come with parenting a child with learning disabilities — like sleepless nights, marital strain, or career sacrifices — she knows whereof she speaks: When he was in grade school, her son was diagnosed as autistic, and she and her husband were told he would never live a normal, independent life.
Now 22, he is living in a home of his own and taking community college courses. And while every child is different and the ideal methods and treatments vary for each one, she said, in most cases there are ways to curtail those stresses.
With the right approach, she said, “you can enjoy your time with your kid.”
Milazzo was speaking at a seminar at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains on May 6, discussing success strategies for parents of children with attention deficit disorder, Asperger’s — an autism spectrum syndrome — and other learning disabilities. The event was sponsored by Jewish Family Service of Central NJ under Kesher: The Jewish Family Connection, which is funded by Jewish Federation of Central NJ, and in cooperation with the Ma’ayan program at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield and the JCC.
The 13 parents in attendance, judging by the comments they made, are dealing with children who, though bright, are showing an array of problems. Milazzo said between 75 and 95 percent of children with learning disabilities don’t graduate from college — though many are highly intelligent.
In an effort to change that, and drawing on her personal and professional experience, Milazzo opened the SAIL Institute in Westfield. A lawyer and mediator and a former teacher, she was diagnosed with ADHD in her 40s — and was helped to alter habits that had dogged her all her life. She offers disability assessments, counseling, and academic and homework coaching, as well as support groups for parents.
At the JCC seminar, she focused on executive functioning, a relatively new approach to sizing up a child’s ability. The symptoms manifested by their youngsters — even seemingly similar ones, she stressed — can stem from totally different underlying problems, and unless those are correctly identified, families can find themselves ricocheting from one useless therapy to another.
Laura Weinger Housley, who lives in Maplewood, said she came because her 12-year-son, though bright, isn’t getting the grades he should. She mentioned that she gets information and support from ASPEN, a parents’ group that meets at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, but the wording on the JFS flyer attracted her: “Are you at your wits’ end because you don’t know what your child with ADHD, Asperger’s, or learning disability needs to support continued academic and social growth, or where to turn for help?”
“That really spoke to us,” Housley said.
Sheri Brown, a career specialist with JFS and coordinator of its Kesher program, said she is always on the lookout for issues of concern to families in the Jewish community. With the rising number of children diagnosed with learning disabilities, how to deal with issues like Asperger’s syndrome has become an increasingly pressing topic.
Amy Ash, the director of the Ma’ayan program, which provides Jewish education for children with learning disabilities, said afterward, “The presentation provided valuable information to parents. I particularly think the hands-on exercises are useful. It’s extremely difficult to put yourself in the shoes of a child with special needs and see how they experience the world. This is helpful for those who live or work with children with special needs, like the students in the Ma’ayan program.”