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Saturday 9/18/99



Protest mars BU groundbreaking

Treatment for autism criticized By SAMME CHITTUM Staff Writer

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY staff photographer
From left to right: Diana Whitmore, Debora Sepanj, Pariessa Sepanj, 6, Lila Acker and Eva Fitzsimmons, of Parents Empowering Parents, demonstrate their concern about methods of treatment at the Institute for Child Development at Binghamton University.

Parents of autistic children made their presence and their grievances known at an otherwise routine groundbreaking Friday for a $1.5 million building to serve as the new home of the Institute for Child Development at Binghamton University.

A dozen parents had plenty to say about a university program that they said harms rather than helps the autistic children who are treated and studied at the institute.

"I want the public to be aware of what's going on behind closed doors there," said Eva Fitzsimmons of Conklin, who along with her husband, Daniel Fitzsimmons, has filed a lawsuit against the institute, a unit of the university affiliated with the psychology department.

Protesters held signs that read, "Autistic Childrens' Dignity Destroyed Here" and "Children Are Not Lab Rats."

The demonstration took place against the backdrop of a two-day child development conference on campus to mark the 25th anniversary of the institute. The groundbreaking ceremony itself featured some 50 officials, supportive parents and children who wielded small shovels painted gold for the occasion.

But the protesters gave far from glowing accounts.

One couple alleged their son had been bruised by restraints while another mother said she had witnessed her daughter, then a toddler, held in check under a chair.

The institute's director, Dr. Raymond G. Romanczyk, defended the institute as well respected, but said he was unable to reply to specific charges due to the pending lawsuit.

"I would emphasize," he said, "that an allegation doesn't mean that something took place."

Romanczyk offered, however, that "many parents hold passionate views about therapies," referring to competing theories about what approaches can help alleviate autism, a developmental disorder that appears during the first three years of life and interferes with reasoning, social interaction and communication. An estimated 400,000 Americans have some form of autism.

Dissatisfied parents accused Romanczyk of asserting his approach as the only valid one. But he said his goal was to provide information to give parents a choice. "I understand the frustration that can occur," he said.

The institute includes the Children's Unit for Treatment and Evaluation, which serves children with autism and severe behavioral disorders. It uses an approach called applied behavior analysis that has come under attack by a local advocacy group, Parents Empowering Parents, which helped organize the protest. The institute's therapies were compared to "techniques used to train dogs," the group's statement said.

The Fitzsimmons said their son, Timothy Fitzsimmons, 8, had been subjected to pointless, repetitive behavior therapy that put research goals before his welfare. That included potty training which required their son to repeatedly go to the bathroom every 15 minutes, a practice that left him suffering from bladder spasms, his mother said.

"We were hoodwinked into believing it was the only thing in the area and the best thing for our child," Daniel Fitzsimmons said.

The Fitzsimmons were joined by other dissatisfied parents.

Debbie Sepanj of Binghamton said her daughter, Pariesa Sepanj, would not sit on a chair for a year after one was placed on top of her to restrain her.

"Our children aren't animals," Debbie Sepanj said. "We don't want to condition them, we want to raise them."

Christina Dubitsky contributed to this report.


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