December 10, 2018

It Takes a Village Glen

It’s break time in a sixth-grade classroom at Village Glen School in Sherman Oaks. Two boys play chess with an air of serious concentration, ignoring a small group of 12-year-olds talking and joking nearby. A handsome boy with golden hair and freckles breaks away from the group, playfully shoves another boy’s shoulder and then pretends to run away in terror; the other student briefly gives chase. It looks like any typical classroom except that all the children here have been diagnosed with autism.

A neurological disorder marked by an inability to connect with other people, autism is increasingly a concern to Jewish families. While researchers and professionals continue their debate over whether the incidence is higher in the Jewish community, several new studies are underway to prove or disprove the theory.

For Jewish families like Greg and Andi Miller, schools like Village Glen are a godsend. Their 13-year-old son, Randy, had struggled to get along in a public elementary school, where he was a source of frustration for his teachers and an object for ridicule to his peers. At one point, Greg Miller recalled, Randy was shoved onto the ground so hard by another student that he had to be strapped to a body board and taken to the hospital. After several years of fighting with Las Virgenes Unified School District over tuition funding, the Millers were finally able to enroll their son in Village Glen.

Opened in 1995, Village Glen combines social skills groups, behavioral and speech therapy along with academic support for 350 children, a proportionately high number of which are Jewish.

Village Glen is just one part of a miniature school system run by The Help Group. Altogether, the organization operates five programs with campuses in the Valley and Culver City, serving more than 850 children. Each program is aimed at a specific population, from the learning disabled to children like Randy, who has a mild form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome; it is high functioning cases like these which are the fastest growing segment of the autism population.

While children with classic autism make little or no eye contact, isolate themselves, resist touch and are often obsessed with routines, children on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum may be intelligent — even gifted in certain areas — but miss commonly understood social cues.

"We used to think this was a really bad disease, kids flapping their hands and throwing tantrums," said Dr. Edward Ritvo, professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and a consultant with The Help Group, who saw his first autistic patient in 1953. But today it’s more prevalent, he said. Ritvo does not believe the Jewish community suffers a higher rate of the syndrome than the general population.

"We used to think autism was found only in certain areas or populations, but subsequently we found it everywhere: in Asia, in Africa, in blacks and whites, in rich and poor, in Jews and Mormons," Ritvo said.

But his wife and colleague, Riva Ritvo, notes that there may indeed be an increase among Ashkenazi Jews, owing to a genetic component now being examined at Stanford University.

Researchers are finding "clusters" in the Jewish community, she said. "The theory behind it is, in the ‘true’ Jewish community there were a lot of marriages of genetic cousins — third cousins, second cousins — so we know that, for example in families where there are multiple children affected, we have genetic cases."

Barbara Firestone, president and CEO of The Help Group said: "So many parents have the experience where they suspect that their child has a special need, the child is identified as such and then what? Then they go through this whole maze. Here we have the full range of those services and when parents come here, we can tailor a program for their child."

Greg Miller is happy about the switch. "Randy is in heaven. He loves going to school, he loves his teachers," he said. "The relationships the school works on between him and his peers is so well-supervised. It is the laboratory where he is learning to be socially appropriate."

Professionals stressed that almost all children with autism can be helped.

Greg Miller is grateful that there is a resource like Village Glen. He recalled an argument he had with a resistant Las Virgenes Unified administrator.

"I told him that he had a choice. He could be driving down the street 20 years from now and see my son striding down the sidewalk, happy and living life, or he could see Randy sitting on a curb, begging," Miller said. "If it wasn’t for the Help Group, Randy would be completely out in the cold."

The Help Group hosts several conferences and lectures throughout the year on autism as well as other disabilities like attention deficit disorder. Their next lecture series will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wed., Nov. 20 and Fri., Nov. 22. For more information, call (818) 779-5212.