The earlier children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are diagnosed, the better. Most are not diagnosed until after age 4. It's important for doctors to screen all children for ASDs.
Former NFL star quarterback Dan Marino and his wife Claire experienced a parents' nightmare: One of their children was diagnosed with autism, known today as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). But what they did next changed not only their lives, but those of many others.
For most parents, the news that their child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) brings an initial reaction of overwhelming alarm and even despair. It can seem as if the doors to the future are being slammed shut for their child.
That's certainly the feeling that Dan and Claire Marino had when they were told in 1992 that their 3-year-old son Michael had autism. "We didn't know what it was," says Dan Marino today. "We actually had to look it up in an encyclopedia."
"We lost our breath, and we thought, what are we going to do now?" adds Claire. "We were so fortunate with Michael. He progressed so beautifully and has done so well. But it was just overwhelming. There was not much out there for us at the time."
The year was 1992, and the Marinos were in shock.
"But then we took it head on and said, 'We're going to do whatever we can to help Michael to get the best help. We want to give him the best chance he can have to succeed in life,'" says the former NFL star. "That's where the focus for The Dan Marino Foundation started.
Motivated by their personal experiences raising Michael, the Marinos were determined to help other children with autism and their families. That same year, they started The Dan Marino Foundation with the mission to "open doors" toward independence for children and young adults with autism and special needs by creating awareness and opportunities. More than two decades later, the foundation has raised more than $39 million to fund the Miami Children's Hospital Dan Marino Center and the Marino Autism Research Institute funding quality-of-life research.
The Marino Foundation understands that parents of young adults with special needs are concerned that their children won't have the skills or education to live independently and be employed. In 2008, the Foundation launched Summer STEPS (Supported Training and Employment Program for Special Needs). In STEPS, teenagers and young adults with developmental disabilities gain experience in a supported work environment, learning communication, social, and teamwork skills.
In 2014, the Foundation plans to open the Marino Vocational College in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a post-secondary vocational school for young adults with disabilities. Participants will receive the guidance and support needed to achieve vocational certification—including job placement services. The Foundation hopes that both initiatives will serve as models for similar efforts across the country.
"Dan and Claire's commitment to excellence—supporting great clinical care and realizing that clinical care can only improve through research—is visionary," says Pat Levitt, Ph.D., director of The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.
Today, 24-year-old Michael Marino has joined his parents in helping to advocate for more ASD research and public understanding.
To find out more, visit www.danmarinofoundation.org.