WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Even before parents recover from the shock of an autism diagnosis, they often embark on what one advocate called "a game of hopscotch" that lasts years as they search for the best services for their child.
A new center that opened this week in White Plains is hoping to change that approach by providing a one-stop experience for people with autism throughout their life.
The Center for Autism and the Developing Brain is now seeing patients and families on the campus of New York-Presbyterian Hospital's Westchester Division. The new center is housed in a historic building on the grounds of the psychiatric facility that has been empty since it was used as a men's gymnasium decades ago.
Much of the $11 million to build the center came from advocates like Ilene Lainer, a parent of a child with autism and executive director of New York Collaborates for Autism.
The New York group worked for years to form a partnership with an academic hospital to offer a variety of services for people of all ages with autism.
"We wanted to see one comprehensive place where all services are integrated," Lainer said in an interview at the White Plains center.
Other organizations, including Autism Speaks, have committed funds to support the center, which they consider a new model for delivering lifetime care.
"A center like this is a blessing for Westchester County," said Alison Singer of Scarsdale, founder of the Autism Science Foundation. "They will use an integrated approach so all the providers will know what the other providers are doing - that is a big step forward."
Once New York-Presbyterian agreed to house the center, advocates set out to attract the top staff members to run it.
Catherine Lord, a renowned autism researcher from Michigan, was recruited to lead the facility. She was a guest speaker in 2011 at Rockland's annual Autism Symposium.
Jennifer Shick-Bahani of New City, who has an 11-year-old son with autism, recalls meeting her and signing her child up to take part in a study Lord was conducting. She looks forward to using the resources of the center to help her son.
"She (Lord) has a lot of interest in how autism develops as a child grows older," Shick-Bahani said. "I think that will help us teach kids more effectively."
Lord has been studying autism for decades and is following more than 200 people from infants to adults who have been diagnosed with the disorder.
Autism is a neurological disorder that affects a person's ability to interact. The symptoms of the spectrum disorder differ widely. People with the severest forms seem to turn inside, unaware and unlinked to the world around them. Those with the relatively minor forms can function but seem blind to unspoken social cues.
No one knows what causes autism, which appears to be on the rise. Estimates about the prevalence of autism vary, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that as many as one in 88 children have a form of the disorder.
"There is no cure for autism," Lord said as she showed visitors around the new center. "But we can manage behaviors and improve the quality of life."
The center will offer a team of therapists and clinicians who can work together to diagnose and manage behaviors associated with autism as well as researchers who will study participants to try to find clues leading to new treatments.