Friday, May 9, 2008

Making strides for autism school in Southborough

SOUTHBOROUGH - When Linda and David Shaffer moved to Southborough 14 years ago, they knew nothing about the New England Center for Children (NECC), a nonprofit education center for children with autism.

But when their son, Harrison, was diagnosed with autism and eventually needed services beyond what public schools could provide, the Shaffers discovered that the best place for Harrison to go to school was virtually in their backyard.

"It was a pretty weird twist of fate," said Linda Shaffer. "But I could go on and on about the gains my son has made in the years he's been at NECC."

Harrison, 9, has spent three years at the school, just off Rte. 9, and has flourished in that time, his mother said. Tomorrow, his family and about 750 other supporters will give back to the school by participating in NECC's second annual 5K Walk/Run for Autism.

The event raised $140,000 last year, and NECC special events director Jennifer Eames expects it will pull in a similar amount this year. Money will go toward the school's annual fund to pay for gym and playground equipment, computers, residence upgrades and safety equipment for the school's aquatic center.

The Shaffer family has created a 10-person team for tomorrow's event, including Harrison's older sister, Alexandra, 11, and a set of grandparents from New Hampshire. The team has raised $4,100 so far.

More important, said Linda Shaffer, is to spread the word to other Southborough residents about NECC.

"So many people drive by the school and don't know what it's about," she said. "People should come out and meet these kids and their families."

For the Shaffer family, NECC has been a place where Harrison has responded to applied-behavioral analysis teaching techniques. He has learned how to tie his shoe, read, write, add and subtract.

"Harrison has done beautifully because of the school," Linda Shaffer said.

When Harrison started at NECC at age 6, he was at the skill level of an 18-month-old, she said. Now, at 9, he has the abilities of a five-year-old.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I envision him doing homework," said Shaffer. "If you saw Harrison three years ago you'd be like, 'Wow, this is amazing.' "

Harrison loves the outdoors, and recently won two Special Olympics medals for running and the softball shot-put. He'll probably enjoy walking the 3.1-mile loop tomorrow, his mother said.

"He can't really express himself with words," she said. "But his face says it all."

The 10 a.m. race starts and finishes near Town Hall, at 17 Common St., and will be followed by a celebration cookout with a band and an awards ceremony. It will be held rain or shine, and registration will start at 8:30 a.m.

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