Beacon of hope

AJ Foundation hosts 10th annual Ride 4 Autism Sept. 9 to raise money for educational programs

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Most parents only want a few things for their child — health, independence and above all, happiness. But what happens when a mother is told her son won’t have any of these? That he should be institutionalized rather than live a normal life?

This was the harsh reality for Joanne Corless, whose son AJ was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but she refused to accept it. Corless formed the AJ Foundation, which now serves as a beacon of hope for local families. On Saturday, Sept. 9, AJF will host its 10th Ride 4 Autism to raise money for its Southampton-based Comprehensive Learning Center, a school with state-of-the-art educational programs to help those with autism lead a normal life.

Cycles of strength: The AJ Foundation is hosting its 10th annual Ride 4 Autism on Saturday, Sept. 9, at Lower Makefield Township Park. The mission of the AJ Foundation is to empower the autism community through awareness and educational programs.

Only 1-in-68 kids are on the spectrum, according to Corless. When AJ was diagnosed as a baby, doctors told her things like “there’s nothing we can do” and “he’ll never amount to anything.” But she knew her son had the potential to live a full life and set out to prove them wrong.

Little did she know, there weren’t a lot of resources out there for autistic children. For some time, AJ was enrolled in a multi-disability program where he was among kids of other disorders including Down syndrome. Though the program provided him support, he needed something more specialized.

Corless immersed herself in researching programs that would better benefit AJ, and by chance came across Applied Behavior Analysis, a scientific approach to understanding human behaviors. Largely focused on the autistic population, ABA breaks skills into smaller parts and is slowly taught using positive reinforcement until the skill is learned.

ABA was just what AJ required, but Corless had difficulties landing him a spot in a practicing school. So she took matters into her own hands, started a home-based program through Rutgers University, and witnessed her son begin to make incredible progress.

At this point, AJ was still attending the IU program, but only two days a week from 9–11:30 a.m. To ensure he was learning and progressing throughout the rest of the week as well, Corless expanded her home program to seven days a week and brought in trained psychology students to work with him for six hours a day. One, who was skilled in ABA, worked with AJ during evening hours as well.

Because of the progress AJ was making at home, Corless started her own organization to not only continue to help him, but give families in similar situations a resource. Throughout 1997–2000, Corless hosted small fundraisers to get her school up and running. Finally in September 2000, she received approval from the Department of Education, and formed the Comprehensive Learning Center, which is located in Southampton.

Though CLC started with three kids, it has significantly grown over the years and now has 35 students and six adults in its education program. The school is licensed to teach ages 3 through adult, and receives its major funding through events hosted by Corless’ AJ Foundation.

AJF hosts several major fundraisers each year, one of which is the Ride 4 Autism on Sept. 9. This year will be the ride’s 10th anniversary, and Corless has seen steady growth since it began. In its first year, $20,000 was raised while last year brought in $96,000. The ride will kick off at Lower Makefield Park in Yardley with registration opening at 7 a.m.

Riders have the option of a 30K, 50K, 100K or 12-mile family ride. A continental breakfast will be served as well as lunch, and attendees can purchase a commemorative 10th anniversary jersey. After registering for the ride, bikers have the option to email a link to family and friends asking for sponsorship. Whoever raises the most money receives the AJ Foundation Trophy Cup, which they can proudly display in their house for the year.

Proceeds raised at the Ride 4 Autism go toward the programs at CLC, which help those with autism reach their full potential. When the school opened, AJ was 7 years old. Now 27, he works three jobs, and independently makes his bed, packs his lunch, irons his clothes and catches the bus.

While these may not seem like significant activities, AJ went through a specific program to master each one. Each is data-driven with a strong at-home component so parents can continue the lessons learned at school in the household. Implementing Applied Behavior Analysis, each skill is broken down and repeated until it becomes automatic. Though some parents are hesitant, they can always look to AJ for inspiration.

“Fast forward 20 years and look at what my son is able to do,” Corless said. ••

To register for the Ride 4 Autism, visit clc-ajf.donorpages.com/BikeRide2017. Online registration is open through Thursday, Sept. 7, and walk-ins are welcome the morning of the ride. For more information on the AJ Foundation and Comprehensive Learning Center, visit ajfoundation.org.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com