Navigating Autism

A Family Finds its Fortune in Helping Others

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THE CARRS KNOW how important little things, like a hug, are to the families they serve. They’re still amazed each time Mitchell tells a joke or does something really typical of most kids his age. And although Greg jokes that they “went from making money to losing money,” the couple wouldn’t trade what they’ve gained from their journey with autism.

“It changed our lives for the better,” Aileen says. “It opens your eyes to never taking your kids for granted and always cherishing the time you have with them.”

A case in point: Mitchell’s after-school visit to the center. Gathered in the reception area, Greg and Aileen soak up the friendly banter between Mitchell and Patricia about who’s the better piano player.

“I can play the theme song from Titanic,” Patricia says.

“So?” Mitchell says, nudging his little sister with his shoulder. “I memorized The Entertainer.”

And in typical 10-year-old-boy fashion, he’s quick to acknowledge that his older sister can be a little bossy. Like most eldest siblings, Caroline, the gentle bookworm of the family, feels responsible for her little brother and sister. So when Mitchell does something that he shouldn’t, she tells him he should stop it.

“I hate when that happens,” Mitchell says with a deadpan face, sparking laughter from his parents and sisters.

This homey atmosphere is a trademark of The Uncommon Thread. In fact, the center is a true family affair. Greg acts as a chief executive officer of sorts, although working in an office full of women usually means he’s the one delegated to make the afternoon coffee run to Dunkin’ Donuts. Beyond picking up coffee, his self-imposed duties include presenting seminars about autism and ABA therapy to doctors, and creating a business plan for special education technology, training and oversight at a lower cost than school districts currently pay.

Phil Carr-Jones, his brother-in-law, volunteers his time to write grants and undertake other fundraising efforts, and is always ready to fix whatever is in disrepair. Aileen’s sister, Mary Beth Dougherty, volunteered to create the center’s website, and has since taken on the lifetime task of updating and maintaining its marketing materials.

Aileen, who holds a graduate certificate in applied behavior analysis from Penn State University, serves as a board-certified assistant behavior analyst at the center. She’s also created the center’s newest program, Project Readiness, which incorporates personalized program requirements and technology with a special emphasis on building social skills and preschool preparedness.

Greg’s sister, Suzanne Carr ’84, and her daughter, Caitlin Hinton ’10, work at the center as well—Suzanne as office manager and accountant, and Caitlin as an aide. Caitlin, who studied elementary education at Susquehanna, decided to pursue a career in special education after spending her summers working at the center. “She always knew she wanted to work with young children,” says Suzanne, “but after working with the kids at the center, she decided to focus on special education.”

As for her role, Suzanne, who’s worked with Greg for 16 years in different capacities, says she “sort of fell into it” after a business venture she was working on didn’t take off. And although her white silk shirt and black high heels look a little out of place when she’s leading a child through the center with a diaper in hand, Suzanne is grateful for the opportunity to work in such an inspiring environment.

“I’m an analytical person,” Suzanne says, “but to see these kids and how excited their parents get over the smallest thing is very rewarding. You don’t get that in the corporate world.”

She also wouldn’t get the opportunity to watch her young nieces help out around the center or have the Carrs’ cockapoo, Acorn, who serves as the center’s honorary therapy dog, come bounding into her office for a pat on the head. And she wouldn’t be able to admire Mitchell doing what he does best: providing hope and inspiration to other families navigating autism.

Victoria Kidd is assistant director of advancement communications and editor of Susquehanna Currents magazine.

 

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