Great Barrington couple makes autism research their passion

Saturday April 27, 2013

GREAT BARRINGTON -- When Tammy Merenda first started working at the Autism Treatment Center of America in Sheffield, the field of work done there was a new concept to them.

"I didn't know what to expect. I had no clue what autism was," she said of the center, which is part of The Option Institute.

After working there for a while and interacting with families and staff members, she and her husband, Chris, developed an understanding of the disorder and respect and appreciation for the programs and support the center offers families.

"We were so inspired," she said. "Even after we stopped working there, we wanted to give something back to them. We want to help families learn what we've learned."

Three years ago, she and her husband, a local musician, decided to organize a benefit autism awareness concert. This year, the concert, which will feature about a dozen musical acts today at the Guthrie Center, takes on a new meaning as the couple prepares to adopt a young boy with autism.

So far, pre-concert efforts have raised more than $6,000 for the Autism Treatment Center of America. The funding helps support scholarships for family education and initial consultations, which are provided to families for free.

"There's a constantly growing demand for services," said Clyde Haberman, an educator and director of development for the Autism Treatment Center of America.

The center uses a signature approach, known as The Son-Rise Program, to help families better serve their children with autism at home. The program serves families in Berkshire County, as well as communities in 90 countries worldwide.

"I think everybody knows somebody touched by autism," Haberman said, "but a lot of people don't know where to go for help."

April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development, according to the national organization Autism Speaks.

The prevalence of autism among children is 1 in 88, according to government figures. Some recent studies are circulating the statistic that 1 in 50 children have autism or an autism spectrum disorder.

These disorders are characterized in varying degrees. People with an ASD-related condition may demonstrate difficulties with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. For example, a person with autism may not smile, or they may laugh at seemingly inappropriate times, which can be challenging for other people to understand.

"We have so many parents who come in who struggle with their fears and sadness," said William Hogan, a senior teacher who's been training people with the Son-Rise program for more than 20 years.

"Our goal ... is to help them understand that this is their life, this is the child you have -- let's live fully," he said. "There's hope; it's possible for a child with autism to become an interactive child."

The Merendas say they have found several other local resources, including other families and the Pittsfield-based Community Resources for People with Autism.

"It's important to make the community aware that there are resources right in their backyard," Chris Merenda said. "It's important for parents to know they have a choice."

Both have attending parenting workshops and Tammy Merenda has done some intensive training programs to better help their soon-to-be-adopted son.

"The way he looks at the world is so amazing," she said of the boy. "He loves to dance spontaneously and stand in a window and just look."

"With the perspective we've gained, we've come [into parenthood] with unconditional love and acceptance," her husband said.

"We just follow what he does," Tammy Merenda said. "It's so easy to be with a child in that way."

To reach Jenn Smith:,
or (413) 496-6239
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink

If you go

What: Autism Awareness Benefit Concert,
featuring live music performed by Chris Merenda, Billy Keane, Rev Tor, Todd Mack, Bruce Mandaro, Benny Kohn, Dave Brown, Pete Gunn, Matt Lamb, Clyde Haberman, Sean Barry, The Joiners.

When: Today. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Where: The Guthrie Center, 2 Van Deusenville Road, Great Barrington.

Details: There will be a raffle, auctions, pizza by Berkshire Mountain Bakery, drinks and beer from Barrington Brewery and Northampton Brewery, T-shirts and information for families about autism and resources.

Cost: Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. All proceeds benefit the Autism Treatment Center of America in Sheffield.

Information: (413) 717-2085 or


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