Tenafly dad driving to boost autism awareness


TENAFLY - If all goes as planned, 6-year-old Rebecca Singer will be in a new school next year.

But first, Rebecca and her father will drive cross-country to raise money to establish the school,

which will serve children with autism.


"We have a lot of things in place, but there is still a lot of work to do,'' said Jonathan Singer,

Rebecca's father, who is starting from scratch to realize his dream of a special school for his

daughter. "First and foremost, we've got to raise the money.''


On Aug. 29, Singer will set out with his little girl, who has autistic tendencies, on a 3,500-mile

trip from New York to California in hopes of raising $10 million through individual pledges and

corporate donations. "The Drive for Rebecca'' will not only raise funds for The School for Better

Living that Singer and his wife, Michey, plan to open in Bergen County, but the trip is also

designed to increase awareness of autism and to promote advanced medical and educational research.


"I'm so convinced that the educational part is so critical,'' Singer said. "Some of these medical

research organizations are convinced they are going to find a cure in a few years, and that's great.

But the educational stuff is making a difference now."


Autism is a lifelong disability that affects communication, social and life skills development. At

least one in every 500 Americans is affected by some form of autism, according to the National

Institutes of Health. The cause of autism is not known and there is no cure.


It's a condition that is diagnosed at a very young age. Autistic children are often withdrawn and

may obsessively repeat body motions such as rocking, pacing, tapping their hands, or flapping

their hands and arms. Most people with autism require lifelong supervision.


When Rebecca was seven months old, her parents noticed something was not right. She was not

meeting developmental milestones.


"When we saw her with other kids her age, we knew something was up,'' Singer recalled.


The Singers took Rebecca to doctors in New York City who weren't able to diagnose her condition,

but they recommended physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Several months later, doctors

ordered genetic testing, which showed that Rebecca had a rare chromosomal abnormality seen in

fewer than 100 people worldwide. Singer said there is no name for the syndrome.


"It was incredibly overwhelming, and we were shocked,'' he said.


When Rebecca was 4 years old, the Singers spoke to a psychologist who said their daughter had

autistic tendencies. They placed Rebecca in a day program at the Washington South School of

Bergen County Special Services in Paramus.


But the Singers wanted a more individualized curriculum with more one-on-one lessons.

Their search led them to several schools, including The Alpine Learning Group in Paramus and

The Institute for Educational Achievement in New Milford, but they were discouraged by long

referral list or long waiting lists.


A need for programs


Linda Meyer, executive director of The Alpine Learning Group, said her school does not have a

waiting list but that there are more than 400 people interested in it.


"Quality programs, effective programs, are needed desperately,'' Meyer said. "Parents who have

children diagnosed with autism need to shop around for a school, and what they find is that most

spots are filled.''


With that in mind, Rebecca's parents decided that they would try to establish their own school.

"We realized after our research that good schools were started by parents, and we thought we had

to go that route,'' said Michey Singer.


The School for Better Living is scheduled to open in January or February. With preliminary approval

from the state Department of Education, the Singers are working on a budget and curriculum with the

help of several friends and the community. Those must also be submitted to the state.


During its first year, the school will serve six children, but will eventually educate 25 to 30 students.


The school, which is still without a building or location, will focus primarily on teaching students

through the method of "applied behavioral analysis.'' Every child will have a one-on-one assistant

to focus on "functional life skills'' to help youngsters to interact with their family and community.


For instance, if a child is going to an amusement park, the school will help the youngster learn how

to wait in line as well as handle crowds.


"That is stuff that can be used in real life,'' Singer said. "It's not just about stretching their legs and

having them sit on a ball and bounce. They'll do some of that stuff too, but everything they do will

be focused on life and real-life stuff.''


Rebecca has severe autistic tendencies. She does not speak, she often bangs on things, and she learns

only through constant repetition.


But she has made significant strides in the last year, according to her parents and baby sitters. She

recently learned to point and is now able to use a picture-based communication system, which allows

her to push buttons when she wants something to eat or drink.


"Every time she learns something new I get so happy that I want to cry,'' said baby sitter Marissa Stein.

She's seen Rebecca progress to a point where the 6-year-old can now pull up her pants after going to the

bathroom. "It may be something small, but it's such a huge thing.''


During the 10-day road trip to Los Angeles, the Singers will make stops in eight cities. Along the route,

the family will be met by local Girl Scout troops who will join them for special celebrations for Rebecca,

who is already a Girl Scout.


Singer said to start the school he will need about $1,000,000.


For more information about the school or the fund-raising efforts, visit the Singers' Web site at

www.DriveForRebecca.org. Monsy Alvarado's e-mail address is alvarado@northjersey.com






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