The Carino's Foundation

April 25, 2012

Melissa Winter
Founder, The Puzzling Piece

Melissa Winter is a mom on mission. The mother of a 7-year-old boy with autism, Melissa knows the needs and challenges families like hers face each day. She also understands how difficult it can be for schools and organizations to fundraise. With all of this in mind, a degree in jewelry design and a desire to get involved, Melissa created The Puzzling Piece. The Puzzling Piece is a charity that has raised much-needed funds for non-profits and has put almost 250 iPads in the hands of deserving families. 

When Melissa’s son Max was diagnosed with autism six years ago, she was in denial. While Max is now content in his mainstream first-grade classroom, it took enrolling in different schools and extracurricular activities to get to this comfortable place. As the family moved with Max from place to place, Melissa had frequent opportunities to meet other families living autism, as well as the educators, therapists and others who have dedicated their careers to changing lives. The more people Melissa met, the more she realized there was a need for special programs and services. So when her son’s school’s fundraising galas just weren’t bringing in enough money, she stepped up and created unique puzzle piece jewelry designs and sold them to help the school meet its goal. Three years later, The Puzzling Piece is only growing stronger.

Through The Puzzling Piece, individuals can purchase unique autism awareness jewelry, designed by Melissa herself. After covering her expenses, she donates all proceeds to charities that promote autism awareness and support, such as the Autism Society.

In addition to supporting autism charities and spreading awareness through her beautiful jewelry, Melissa created the iPad challenge to help families get iPads. For some individuals on the autism spectrum, the iPad has proven to have communication and educational benefits. Her efforts have made a world of difference, as the families who receive iPads from her write in their countless thank you emails.

It is through her selflessness and drive to help others that Melissa Winter should be recognized as a Carino’s Autism Champion!

April 23, 2012

Gianna Hitsos
Boston, MA

Sixteen year old Gianna Hitsos is a singer, speaker and actor with a mission: to bring awareness and to change the perception of people with autism. Gianna was diagnosed with autism at age two when she stopped talking and began to show many symptoms. At the time, doctors told her parents that she may never regain language. However, through early intervention, years of struggle and a lot of hard work, Gianna has overcome many obstacles associated with her disability, including language.

Gianna had extremely painful experiences growing up because of the misconceptions of autism, and she was treated like an outcast. Gianna is extremely smart but when she went to school, she was bullied by kids, parents and even teachers because she had a disability that no one wanted to understand. Her family had to relocate to Massachusetts to give her a better chance. 

After finding a school that understood how she learned, things improved dramatically. Gianna discovered her abilities of singing and public speaking and decided to use her gifts to "give back" and promote autism awareness. She now speaks and sings at fundraisers and events, and tells her difficult story of living with autism. She hopes to change the perception of autism so that what happened to her will not happen to anyone else. She has started an Autism Awareness Week at her high school and raises money for autism awareness.  She even sang the National Anthem at a Boston Red Sox game and a Boston University Men's Hockey game

A quote from Gianna's public Facebook page for autism awareness says, "Some people will make fun of you for who you are, but who you are makes you wonderful. Bullying is weak. Acceptance is strong." Gianna is using her talents to make a difference. Her passion to give back to others despite her autism is truly inspiring. 

April 19, 2012

DeeAnn Hooper
Schulenburg, Texas

Dee Ann Hooper is a mother who has not only faced the challenge of raising two boys diagnosed with autism, but she tragically lost one of her boys to a brief, unrelated illness in 2011. Jack was just shy of his 10th birthday. Jack's parents wanted to do something to honor the life of their son, and the Turtle Wing Foundation was born. 

Having two children with autism is a challenge even in the best of circumstances. Following Jack's diagnosis, DeeAnn and her husband, Chris, quickly learned that their challenge was made more difficult because the resources they needed were hard to come by in their rural community. Following the unexpected loss of her son, DeeAnn founded Turtle Wing to help families just like hers. Not only to help the families affected by autism, but all families with special needs who find limited resources in their smaller communities. Whether it's a child with ADHD, dyslexia, Aspergers or Down Syndrome, or even a child who just needs extra help in math, Turtle Wing aims to make the resources required to address their needs more accessible.

Turtle Wing's first fundraising event is a 5k Fun Run and a Home Run Derby on April 28th. Learn more about Jack, DeeAnn and the mission of Turtle Wing in the touching video "Jack's Story".  

April 17, 2012

Laurence A. Becker, Ph.D.
Austin, Texas

For over 35 years, Laurence A. Becker, Ph.D. has been a leading spokesman for several world-renowned autistic savant artists. As an educator, he has collected many resources (books, films, research and articles) and shared them with educators, doctors, parents and grandparents. He has written in numerous publications including a year-long series "What's Old, What's New: Books and Films Worth Knowing" for The Autism At Home Series. His "Autism and Nutrition" article in The Official Autism 101 Manual was one of 44 articles contributed by MD's, Ph.D.'s, parents, caregivers and educators, and combined his interests in autism and nutrition as a healing modality. He also produced the international, award-winning documentary film "With Eyes Wide Open" about autistic savant artist Richard Wawro of Edinburgh, Scotland.

For over 20 years, Laurence organized exhibitions throughout the United States. He was responsible for introducing the art of three major autistic savants to the United States: Richard Wawro (Scotland), Christophe Pillault (France) and Ping Lian (Malaysia).  The art of each may be seen on Dr. Darold A. Treffert's website and in his book Islands of Genius, the foremost book on savants. 

Laurence continues to receive communications from parents of children with autism who have learned about his advocacy over many years. He continues to expand his knowledge and experience of these amazing people with extraordinary talents to share with the world. He humbly says, "I am an aqueduct: I am not the water or the source of the water, but I am an instrument through which the water flows." And it does continue to flow as more and more accounts of healing from parents are emerging, and more and more research is being pursued. 

April 12, 2012

Matthew Dalton
Founder of Autism MX

Matthew Dalton is a father of a young child with autism and is the founder of Autism MX.  The Autism MX project is an organization that promotes autism awareness throughout the motocross community. Importantly, while many projects focus on raising community awareness of autism, Matthew's project provides unique experiences for children on the autism spectrum: the AMX day camps. In these camps, Matthew provides children with the opportunity to ride recreational in a safe, supporting environment. These camps have been a tremendous success, with a number of children getting an experience that was not previously available. Each camp has seen a growing number of campers come experience the thrill of riding and the satisfaction of accomplishment. While the camps have been in California (four in 2011), there are plans to expand this program across the country.

Though Autism MX began with Matthew and his sons, his efforts have linked families across the country, united by love of their children with autism and of motocross. Autism MX now supports over a dozen riders across the country, including professional racers. Matthew's contributions to children and families have been increasingly recognized and he has been interviewed by several local and national publications.  On April 15th, Autism MX will host the Ride for Awareness Day. This event is expected to be a tremendous fundraiser and means to increase autism awareness.

Matthew is an inspiration to many and is truly an Autism Champion.


April 10, 2012

Brent S., profiled by his mother
Austin, Texas

Twelve year old Brent S. works every day in his school and community as an everyday Autism Champion. Brent is a sixth-grader and so is his brother, Harry, whom received a diagnosis of autism at age two. Brent has embraced having a disabled brother and works tenaciously for inclusion, unknowingly advocating for autism acceptance.

Brent chooses to eat lunch daily with Harry at school, helping him through the lunch line and oftentimes declining invitations to sit with friends when two seats together are unavailable. There are days when Brent has arranged for friends to sit with Harry at lunch for a scheduled absence. While it may not seem like a big deal, this simple gesture gives Harry extra peer interaction to help build social skills and leads peers in the opportunity to interact with Harry, shaping perceptions about this complex and confusing disorder. 

Recently, Brent was assigned to give a persuasive speech and he immediately wanted to speak about the Special Olympics' campaign, Spread the Word to End the Word. The campaign supports eliminating the use of the R-word -- retarded and retard. As a difficult topic for any sixth-grader to tackle with peers, I had my concerns. Brent wrote a compelling speech, challenging his classmates to take the pledge to quit using the R-word. He explained that when he hears kids use the R-word in the halls and in a derogatory way, it is offensive to people with intellectual disabilities and insulting to him and his brother. His speech was well-received, raising awareness for all people with differences.

Countless times, I have witnessed Brent proudly introducing his brother, explaining autism to a stranger, and even standing up for social justice. He has learned that education is the key to people understanding and accepting autism, taking every opportunity to speak publicly to educate others on the disorder.

The other day, I was telling Brent how I admire everything he does for his brother. His reply, "I don't think I do anything too special. He's not just my brother, he's my best friend." Their friendship transcends the obstacles of Autism.

Brent is my everyday Autism Champion -- my hero.


April 05, 2012

Maria Hernandez, SLP
Austin, Texas

As founder of the local organization Growing Roots, families are referred to Maria Hernandez for free, culturally-competent services. Her organization is one-of-a-kind on a national scale, and so is Maria herself. She is a speech therapist by trade who, through her work with monolingual Spanish families, noticed that many parents were not only unaware of their children's educational rights and opportunities, but they were lost and ashamed. Maria saw that mother after mother did not have an understanding of their child's disorder, merely that a doctor had made a diagnosis and then were handed a requisite pamphlet. Often, the parents only have ten minutes total with a doctor to ask questions.

Maria set out on a personal quest to help these families and in the process, Growing Roots was founded. Using meeting rooms in local libraries and with no budget except her personal money, she hosts monthly community meetings. At these meetings she educates parents on their child's diagnosis, proper treatment solutions and, just as important, she lets them know that they are not alone.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate what Maria does is through a story. During the first parent meeting she planned, Maria carefully crafted a two hour agenda to include icebreakers, a thorough description of what a school ARD meeting is and to explain the different parts of a child's Individual Education Plan. But at the end of two hours, the group had yet to make it past the introductions. Tears and tissues were still flowing around the room while mothers poured their hearts out to each other.

For dozens of local families and hundreds more to come, Maria Hernandez is truly an Autism Champion. 

April 03, 2012

To kick-off our Carino's Autism Champions, we start with someone who has devoted his life to improving the lives of all people affected by autism.  

Dr. James Ball, Chair, Autism Society's Board of Directors

Dr. James Ball, Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral, is President/CEO of JB Autism Consulting. He has been in the field of autism for over 25 years, providing educational, residential and employment services to children and adults affected by autism. He is also the Director of Clinical Services for New York Families of Autistic Children (NYFAC), a private not-for-profit organization providing support and training for children and families in New York City. He provides private consultation to organizations, schools and families regarding staff training, parent training, home support services, classroom design/support and behavior management/assessment. 

Dr. Ball is also a past member of the Autism New Jersey (formally known as the New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community [COSAC]) Board of Trustees and a member of the Autism New Jersey Professional Advisory Board. He is currently the chair of the Autism Society's National Board of Directors and has served as the co-chair of Autism Society's Panel of Professional Advisors. He also sits on the advisory board for the Autism Asperger's Digest magazine. Dr. Ball has lectured nationally and internationally on various topics related to autism, such as early intervention, inclusion services, functional behavior assessment, social skills training, behavior management, direct instruction, sensory issues and accountability. He has published in many of the above areas and authored the award-winning breakthrough book Early Intervention and Autism: Real-Life Questions, Real-Life Answers.

Dr. Ball has won numerous awards, including NYFAC's Autism Inspiration Award, Autism Society's Literary Work of the Year Award for his manual on social security and employment for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and Autism New Jersey's highest honor, their Distinguished Service Award.