Theresa Pirraglia of Katonah, founder of a special needs school for children with autism, has been nominated by New York state Sen. Greg Ball as his 2013 New York State Senate Woman of Distinction. Ms. Pirraglia will represent the 40th New York State Senate District, which covers Lewisboro and Katonah.
Ms. Pirraglia, who has a 25-year-old autistic son, Matthew, joined with her husband, Joe, and seven other families in 1996 to found the Devereux Millwood Learning Center in Westchester County. The center was the first school in the lower Hudson Valley for children with autism based on the principles of applied behavioral analysis.
Today, the school serves autistic children and young people age 5 to 21 from throughout the region.
“I can’t think of a more deserving person for this honor,” Mr. Ball said. “From helping other parents with special needs children navigate the education system, to fighting the closure of the Devereux Day Habilitation Program, Terry is truly doing God’s work. It is a fitting tribute to honor her as a 2013 New York State Woman of Distinction alongside other women of distinction from throughout this great state.”
Challenges spark progress
Ms. Pirraglia, a native of the Bronx, is a graduate of Fordham University with a degree in communications. Her husband, Joe, is a dentist with a practice in Cold Spring. The couple has two sons, Joseph, 27, and Matthew, 25, who has autism.
“Matthew was two and a half when he was diagnosed with autism,” Ms. Pirraglia told The Ledger earlier this week. “Once the diagnosis was made, we put him in an early intervention program, but he simply was not making any progress. We decided to change direction and began using the technique of applied behavioral analysis at home. But we knew this was only temporary and couldn’t go on indefinitely.”
At this point, the Pirraglias joined forces with seven other families with autistic children and approached the Devereux Foundation for assistance with opening a special private school, supported by public funding, for autistic children.
The center was the first school for children with autism based on the principles of applied behavioral analysis in the lower Hudson Valley.
“The school is totally dedicated to autism,” Ms. Pirraglia said. “The goal is to get the young people back into their regular school systems, and many are able to do that.”
Once the school was up and running with great success, Ms. Pirraglia and her group wanted to help meet the new “demographic tsunami” of adults with autism throughout New York.
Taking the initiative, she designed and co-founded with the Devereux Foundation the first Enhanced Supported Employment and Day Habilitation Without Walls program.
This program has enabled young adults with autism to obtain and maintain paid employment in their communities in the Hudson Valley. In addition, the program provides ongoing volunteer opportunities for all its participants.
“This program has enabled young adults with autism to be full contributing members in their local communities,” Ms. Pirraglia said. “Locally we cooperate with the Boys & Girls Club of Mt. Kisco, Northern Westchester Hospital, the Bethel Nursing Home in Croton, and others.”
The autistic young people learn work skills in these organizations that can help them gain employment.
“The goal is help them get skills that can translate into the larger workplace,” Ms. Pirraglia said. “But the volunteer aspect is also very important. They gain a great deal of satisfaction from that and it is not to be underestimated. Right now the age range of our participants is 21 to 27 and we have 15 young people enrolled.”
Lots to do
When asked what she believed was behind the recent dramatic increase in the number of autistic patients, Ms. Pirraglia said it was open to different interpretations.
“When our son was first diagnosed more than two decades ago, it was one in several thousand. Now it is one in 80 childen and four-to-one male.
“Definitions of autism have been expanded greatly, which accounts for some of it, certainly, and I think it was under-diagnosed before. Some of it could be genetic; some could be environmental. I personally do not believe it is caused by vaccines. We are still looking for the answers.”
In addition to her work with the school and the work skills program, Ms. Pirraglia has been a leader in the developmental disability community in New York state. She has co-chaired 12 educational and medical conferences on autism with such partners as the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and the Westchester Institute for Human Development.
She is currently a board member of the Foundation for Educating Children with Autism, Mental Health News Education Inc., and a member of Westchester County’s Autism Advisory Committee. In addition, she sits on the editorial board of Autism Spectrum News.
“I would like to sincerely thank Sen. Greg Ball for selecting me as the 40th NYS Senatorial District’s Woman of Distinction,” Ms. Pirraglia said, “and I am truly humbled by it. It has been my privilege to work with persons with developmental disabilities and their families, who struggle every day to have a quality of life that all New Yorkers take for granted.”
Ms. Pirraglia will be honored at Mr. Greg Ball’s 40th Senate District Women of Distinction Hall of Fame on Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Putnam County Emergency Services Building starting at 2 p.m.
For information, call Joe Bachmeier at 845-200-9716.