Eric and Debra Hench have spent most of the last two decades helping their son live the fullest life possible.
Jon was diagnosed with autism when he was 6 years old and resources in northwest Ohio were scarce. Just finding a dentist patient enough to clean his teeth was a chore, Mrs. Hench said.
The teenage years were the most difficult as Jon, now 19, physically turned into a man, but continued to be impulsive with no regard for consequences and lacked control of his emotions, Mrs. Hench said.
"His 8-year-old autistic mind was controlling both his teenage body and our lives," she said.
A unique program was announced yesterday that would help families through that difficult transition.
The Hench Autism Studies Program at Defiance College aims to help educate families and those who work with autistic individuals, as well as give students service learning opportunities.
The program includes an on-campus classroom for late adolescents with autism, a resource center for families, training for Defiance College students to be peer mentors to autistic adolescents, focused instruction and additional training for social workers, and a new graduate program in education with an emphasis on autism.
Mr. and Mrs. Hench gave the lead gift for what is so far a $1.15 million venture and is believed to be the first of its kind to focus resources for autistic persons ages 15 to 22.
Mr. Hench is the chairman of the Chief and Ray's supermarket chains, with 13 stores in northwest and cen-tral Ohio.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 child in 150 is diagnosed with some form of autism. As awareness about the developmental disability increases, many of the resources are funneled into research and early recognition.
"As important as that research is, for those that are afflicted, life as it is must go on," Defiance College President Gerald Wood said.
"The quality of that life is determined by opportunities for those with autism to grow, to mature, and to be educated with knowledge and skills that will help them meet their unique challenges and maximize their capabilities."
The classroom on the Defiance College campus was designed with special lighting, sound reduction, and other technologies. Two students with autism are being taught there by teachers from the Northwest Ohio Educational Service Center.
And they interact with college students, such as freshman Stan Strausbaugh, in the mentoring program.
"We learned that individuals with autism tend to look at the world differently than you and I do, that routine is very important, and that they tend to be very literal in how the communicate," Mr. Strausbaugh said.
The autistic students also run a coffee shop on campus a few days a week, further increasing their social interaction.
John Wilhelm, superintendent of the Northwest Ohio Educational Service Center, said he's excited about both the short-term goal of helping autistic students through the new classroom and the long-term goal of better preparing future educators.
"All children can learn, and some will need creative and well-informed teachers, schools, and families to make it happen more than others," he said. "That is what makes this partnership exciting and hopeful."
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