Never Alone
Hope springs eternal for families affected by autism and other developmental disorders
by Jill Lupine

When a child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, his or her parents inevitably face a roller coaster of emotions. They fear their child will endure a life of overwhelming challenges, of feeling ostracized for being “different,” of being isolated and alone.

Such a scenario is not fated, however, especially in the Philadelphia area. In fact, Wendy Ross, M.D., a Wynnewood resident, wants to make Philadelphia “the most autism-friendly city in the country,” as she recently told CNN.

Board certified in general pediatrics and in developmental and behavioral pediatrics, Dr. Ross was the director of developmental medicine and genetics at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia before starting a nonprofit called Autism Inclusion Resources (AIR), to help children with autism “participate more fully in the world.” She also runs her own private practice, the Center for Pediatric Development ( in Bryn Mawr, which she now serves as director.

Since launching AIR, Dr. Ross has helped hundreds of families navigate potentially daunting social situations, such as attending sporting events at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies. Through AIR, she worked to educate all Phillies game-day personnel—as many as 3,000 people—so they understand how to interact with individuals who have autism. As a result, all stadium employees, down to every last peanut vendor, now help foster an atmosphere of inclusion.

Dr. Ross has since expanded the program to include airport travel. Using the same principles, she trains airline and security staff at major airports and then proceeds to guide families that have been touched by autism through simulated travel experiences—everything from check-in to boarding the plane for takeoff. Her work has not ended end there, as AIR is now working with other Philadelphia-area destinations, including other sports stadiums and museums.  

Dr. Ross’ efforts have turned some heads. She was recently named a 2014 Top 10 CNN Hero, for example, and she will soon vie for CNN’s Hero of the Year designation.

Pioneers such as Dr. Ross are proof that children with autism are gaining increasing opportunities to find their place in the world. Although this is certainly good news, it is tempered by the fact that more people than ever before are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder—and no one seems to understand why. Approximately one out of every 88 children in the United States has an autism diagnosis, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and about 36,500 of every 4 million children born each year in the United States will have the disorder.

Thankfully, Dr. Ross is hardly the only one making headlines in the battle against the isolation and other challenges that accompany autism. For nearly 50 years, a Berwyn-based organization known as Melmark ( has been providing high-quality programs and services for individuals with special needs. This includes creative and artistic programs to help students explore and find their strengths, according to Jessica Woods, Ph.D., Melmark’s executive director of children’s services.

“Whether that occurs in our art classes, music sessions, sports/recreational teams, healthy lifestyle initiatives, or various other social outlets, such as ‘Club Melmark’ and ‘Open Mic Night,’ we give our children numerous opportunities to discover their talents,” says Woods. “We have a number of accomplished artists, musicians and singers among our midst, and they prove to us every day that we all just have different abilities, not disabilities.”

Melmark offers a range of residential, educational, vocational and health care services for children and adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, brain injury or other genetic and neurological disorders. Besides helping students “be their best” from an educational and vocational readiness standpoint, Melmark also helps students acquire the “soft skills” associated with success after age 21, according to Woods.

“In this way, our students are no different from any other young adult,” she says. “They want to have meaningful work and be productive in society but will ultimately define their own success and happiness in life based on their relationships with family and friends, maximized independence and positive self-regard. We feel these are critical areas in which to build skills, so our students grow to feel loved, valued and also valuable to others.”

Options for improvement are not limited to children affected by autism. Children who struggle with communication, movement, self-help, learning or behavior come to EBS Children’s Institute ( in West Chester to learn skills needed to succeed in their daily lives. Here, the EBS Children’s Institute team of specialists provides speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, as well as special education, psychology and behavioral therapy, to children from birth to 21 years old. EBS Children’s Institute, which is part of EBS Healthcare, conducts research in partnership with top experts and universities across the country to help advance the field. Its combination of research and clinical experience has made EBS Children’s Institute a destination not only for families living in Chester County but also from those living in other states.

Some of the world’s most successful people have been diagnosed with one form of developmental disorder or another. Among them is comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who recently helped lessen the stigma surrounding autism by suggesting he might be “on the spectrum.” Put another way, hope springs eternal.