By Annette Pinder
When Lauren Savino discovered how much she enjoyed working with young children while volunteering at a school, she decided to triple-majored in Spanish, Special Education, and Elementary Education. Now she teaches fourth and fifth graders — her favorite age group — at Bennett Park Montessori School #32.
Lauren had been the access and inclusion coordinator at Explore and More Children’s Museum, designing programs, visual schedules, sensory backpacks, social stories, creating autism evenings, and more. Before that, she worked at the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital Early Child Development Center (ECDC), providing technical assistance and resources for families of children with developmental disabilities, helping preschools and early childcare providers, and connecting families to early intervention and support.
It was while working at ECDC that being a parent of a child with a developmental disability took on a whole new meaning for Lauren. For it was then that Lauren’s daughter Sophia, just 18 months old, was diagnosed with autism. Lauren noticed the red flags — head banging, lack of eye contact, deficient play skills, mood and behavioral changes, and regressive sleep habits. It was a very traumatic time,” said Lauren. Fortunately, Lauren knew where to get help. Knowing a physician’s referral is not required, Lauren arranged for a free evaluation for Sophia through New York state, explaining that children under age 3 are entitled to free in-home early intervention and those over age 3 receive early intervention through their school district. Following the evaluation, Sophia was enrolled at the Summit Center (Summit).
Then, just when things seemed to be on track, when Sophia was 5 and Lauren’s son Brady was 3, she noticed a spot on her leg, made an appointment with her dermatologist, and was advised to go to Roswell immediately. At the age of 32, Lauren was diagnosed with stage three melanoma. “I was juggling two children, going to numerous medical appointments, and dealing with the news that I had a fast-spreading cancer that required immediate surgery. Following a six-hour surgery requiring removal of all of the lymph nodes surrounding the melanoma, I was left having to use a walker to get everywhere, I had to administer shots to my leg, and was developing blood clots,” said Lauren. Fortunately, Lauren recovered more quickly than expected. She receives frequent screenings and skin checks, and follows a healthy diet. She always wears sunscreen and warns others to do the same. She works out five days a week, enjoys Peloton cycling, strength training, and yoga, avoids foods that are hard to digest, has only one coffee a day, and drinks lots of water.
Lauren can’t say enough about Summit and their vast array of programs and services for children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, including early intensive behavioral intervention for preschoolers with autism; respite programs; recreation and leisure programs; parent training; adult day programs and vocational training; a feeding and behavioral health clinic; and more.
These days Sophia is thriving, and her little brother Brady plays with and looks after her. She enjoys school, has adapted well to hybrid learning, and is having her best year ever. She is happy, independent, and has her own unique personality. Lauren is quick to remind people that that autism is a spectrum and that no two people with autism are alike. “There’s a saying, ‘When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,’” says Lauren.
Lauren says she is a better person because of Sophia. She explains, “You have this vision of what life is supposed to be like before you have children. People in the autism community say, ‘When you receive that diagnosis you never expected it’s like being on a plane to Bermuda and told at the last minute that you’re going to Holland. It forces you to react, make choices, and support and love your child. You learn to have faith that you’re doing your best.’” She adds, “Throughout this entire process, I’ve met so many amazing people — physicians, therapists, and parents. I have met them through Summit, The Buffalo Autism Group, and Parent Network of WNY. Many have become my closest friends. I’ve learned that as you keep going, the path gets brighter and brighter. It has given me purpose.”
Learn more about The Summit Center’s programs and services, at www.summitwalk.org, including their upcoming virtual Autism Walk on May 15-16. For information on services available to families with children with disabilities visit www.parentnetworkwny.org.