By Janet Rathner Staff Writer Gazette Community News
Romping with his mother, grandparents or an assortment of teen-agers fulfilling high school community service requirements in a specially designed toy room, Michael Caramanico, 6, is personification of play being the work of children.
The North Potomac youngster is autistic. His family is all too familiar with his inability to interact with people and his screams of frustration, but things are changing.
Since January Michael has been involved in Son-Rise, a program designed to help him become a willing participant in life by him introducing toy room guests to his world.
During five to six hours of daily playtime, Michael dictates the activities. In his playroom at his grand parents' house in Rockville, Michael is the boss. His playmates follow his lead, even if on occasion that means joining him in spitting juice on the floor.
There are no corrections or admonishments, and whatever he chooses to do is fine. Family members said Michael is working hard at this play, and they are beginning to see positive results.
"He's more communicative and willing to listen to what we say instead of excluding us from his life. Before he ignored us," said Nadine Collins, Michael's grandmother.
Speech Therapist Lisa Hill, whose playtime with Michael is designed to help him become more conversational, explained why she believes Son-Rise succeeds where other therapies have failed.
"This lets us join him" she said. "Maybe if I do what you do, you'll do what I do.
Michael Caramanico, 6, of North Potomac plays with Nathan Bortnick, 16, in the playroom that Michaels's grandparents built in their Rockyville home.
It's a form of acceptance for what he is and hoping he'll choose to become like us. But we don't force it.
Until his family decided to try Son-Rise approach on a full-time basis, Michael, beginning when he was a toddler, had been enrolled in a number of special needs programs offered by Montgomery County Public Schools. He no longer participates in any of those programs. His mother is making arrangements to home school him next year as state law re quires children old enough to be in first grade must be enrolled in an approved educational program
"They weren't teaching him to interact," said Diana Caramanico, 36, recalling her son's withdrawal from classroom activities and retreating to a corner. "Son-Rise said if we work this well, Michael is reachable He could be in a regular classroom with nobody ever knowing he was autistic in about nine to 10 months."
James Collins, Michael's grandfather and a favorite playmate, said Michael's willingness to not participate compounded his problem.
"Kids like this are easy to warehouse," Collins said. "you could shut him up in his room all day long and he'd be perfectly happy."
But today, Michael is engaged. While there is only fleeting eye contact with a visitor, he smiles when Collin comes in to relieve Caramanico. It's extremely difficult to under-stand him, but after four months ofintensive play therapy, Michael does initiate conversation with his regular toy room entourage. Son-Rise is one of several programs available to help individuals with developmental disabilities offered by The Option Institute, a non-profit learning center in Sheffield, Mass.
The Option Institute was established following the successful experiences of founders Barry and Samahria Kaufman to lead their mute, withdrawn, functionally retarded son, Raun, from his autistic world.
Doctors and specialists told the Kaufmans that with an IQ of less than 30, Raun's condition was irreversible and that he should be institutionalized. Raun Kaufman, 25, went on to graduate from Brown University with a degree in bio-medical ethics. Outgoing and with an active, social life, he works at The Option Institute with his parents, running the training sessions for Son-Rise families who come from all over the World...
"Autism is an inability to relate and interact with others due perceptual difficulties. We believe it can be cured," said Jonathan A., a Son-Rise program administrator.
He knows Michael's family. He came to Rockville to supervise the playroom set up. Among other requirements, toy shelves are up high so Michael has to ask for what he wants. Johnathan said he sees Michael's improvement.
"His language and clarity have increased. His eye contact has increased. His attention span and cooperation have improved. He's a more-willing participant," John A. said.
That's what his mother sees as well.
"We love him so much," said Diana Caramanico. "He's a delightful child. I want him to reach the fullest potential that he has. It's reachable in this room."
*The pricing information in this article is incorrect.
Please call 1-877-SONRISE for correct pricing and to obtain an updated schedule of programs.