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Autism philanthropist tries comedy

Grace Ann and Michael Baresich, center, with their children Alec, left, Michael and Greta eating out on a trip to France. Grace Ann runs autistictraveler.com, which provides tips on traveling with an autistic child.

Grace Ann Baresich made comedy star Tina Fey laugh with stories about her son a couple of weeks ago.

Their dinner together was a part of Comedy Central’s fundraiser show, “Night of Too Many Stars,” which originally aired on Sunday, Oct. 21. The show raises money for programs provided by New York Collaboratives for Autism, which helps autistic people integrate into the world and provides housing.

Baresich, along with another woman, bid $36,000 to sit at a table and be “best friends” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. They spent the night running around Manhattan and were part of the taped show. Baresich constantly donates her time and money to autism programs. About the Comedy Central bid, she believes it goes to a valuable organization. “It’s a gift that keeps on giving as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “I have a son who’s a teen and it’s a challenge. I’m hoping he can benefit.”

Baresich is the mother of an autistic 17-year old who attends Darien High School. Her son Alec was diagnosed at the age of two. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the prevalence is currently one in 88 children, though there has been an upward trend over time.

Darien schools have also seen a rise in autism. The cases have increased from 40 to 56 in four years. At the show, Baresich noticed that everyone had a connection to an autistic child. That might not have been the case 10 years ago, she said.

New York Collaboratives provides educational programs and the funds raised this month will go to expanding vocational training programs and residential housing for teens, Baresich said. At the same event two years ago, Comedy Central raised enough money for the organization to open their Center for Autism and the Developing Brain in White Plains.

Baresich is concerned about teenagers specifically because, like her son, they will be phased out of public school at the age of 21. “There are a huge number of teens becoming adults,” she said. “What these people are doing is great, specific and quite targeted.”

There are not enough programs to support children and even less programs that train them for adulthood. She and her husband decided to keep their son in the Darien schools for that reason. They didn’t want to send Alec to a school in a different state.

Alec, who just started high school, learns in a “contained classroom,” according to his mother. He receives certain special education services through the day and learns how to do practical tasks. “It’s actually an ongoing development process with the high school,” she said. Baresich is not sure how the school will help Alec transition into the working world when he is out of the system.

Many parents take on the expense of taking care of their austistic child into adulthood as austism is not a disability that shortens the lifespan. The costs of supporting an autistic child are high, Baresich said. Sometimes the costs are in time or convenience. Baresich and her husband, who already had two older children, discovered that traveling with an autistic child was difficult.

That was when Baresich created AutisticTraveler.com to serve as a resource for parents hoping to travel despite the obvious challenges. The website gives parents step-by-step guides on preparing for trips. She has helped many people plan directly, including Lucy Hawking, Steven Hawking’s daughter.

Airport staff are more aware of autism now and therefore more accommodating, Baresich said. She sends all airlines a short questionnaire to know what to expect. Despite her large knowledge base, she does not have it easy. At the airport, her son Alec likes to mimic sound bites from movies. Sometimes the scenes he likes are inappropriate for the airport, Baresich explained. During one trip Alec voiced a scene from Toy Story when the toys are about to get crushed and scream that they are going to die. You have to have a sense of humor in those moments, Baresich said.

And that’s how Grace Ann Baresich made Tina Fey laugh — with stories about the struggles and successes in taking care of an autistic child.

Comedy Central is still accepting donations. Text STARS to 50555 to donate $10 to New York Collaborates for Autism.

More info: autismtraveler.com; nyc4a.org; cc.com/toomanystars

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