Wednesday, January 14, 2009

School gets 'a lot of credit' for autistic boy's growth

by DAVID WENNER, Of The Patriot-News
Tuesday January 13, 2009, 11:57 PM

Helen Reyes knew cancer would kill her. But the single mom was most afraid of what would happen to her son, L.J.

L.J. has fragile x syndrome, which is similar to autism. He'll probably never be completely independent.

Reyes knew she wouldn't be around to fend for L.J. So she latched onto a dream.
She dreamed of an institution such as the one depicted in the movie "Rain Man," in which Dustin Hoffman played an autistic man.

She pictured L.J. surrounded by trees and lawns. She imagined gentle caregivers who would protect her son, who was 13 when she died in 2005.

As often happens with dreams, it didn't come true. Yet she might be smiling.

L.J., now 16, lives near Halifax in a house overlooking a valley. He goes to Upper Dauphin High School, attending a program that focuses on making him as independent as possible.

His classroom contains a replica of an apartment, where students learn about cooking and cleaning and laundry.

"I think it has worked out great," said Beth Lehman, his legal guardian. "I give the school a lot of credit."

Through the school, he has worked at a church preparing meals for the elderly, and at a local grocery store.

He's more composed and makes more eye contact than he did a few years ago, Lehman said. He visits his grandmother, Johanne Kohl of Steelton, and his uncle, who lives in Philadelphia.

Sherry Gaglione of West Hanover Township was a close friend of Helen Reyes and has known L.J. since he was a little boy. She keeps in touch with Lehman and L.J.

"I couldn't be more happy for him. He's adjusting well. Beth is like his second mom," Gaglione said.

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