PASSAIC, N.J. — New Jersey has the highest prevalence of people with autism. According to Executive Director of POAC Autism Services Gary Weitzen, one in every 44 individuals has autism in the state.
The non-profit organization POAC , seeks to create a sense of community for people who have autism, or have a child or relative with autism.
The organization holds support groups in the city of Passaic, but has previously had events in Garfield, Rutherford, Ridgefield Park, Mahwah, Hackensack and Lyndhurst, as well as countless other gatherings across Bergen County.
The independent organization has made strides providing services for families connected to autism.
"It’s a different world today than when my child was three," Weitzen said.
"There was nothing back then. Literally nothing."
POAC offers a variety of services including recreational events, training for emergency responders, support groups and countless other programs.
Weitzen said the recreational events allow families and children to enjoy community without having to worry about "making excuses for what other people think." The realities of living with an individual with autism can create strong bonds.
"I always tell moms and dads it doesn’t matter what religion, beliefs, Trump or Hillary supporter — I have more in common with them than my two sisters. We share the same life," Weitzen said.
POAC has grown in scope since its inception but for many, the issues facing individuals with autism and the methods to remedy those problems are completely unknown.
Weitzen referenced Project Lifesaver, a device originally designed for Alzheimer patients, that allows families to find their loved ones after they've gone missing.
Over 17 years, Project Lifesaver has a 100 percent success rate, but it's impressive record is not widely known.
"The average police officer has never heard of it," Weitzen said.
In fact, one of POAC's main services is the Autism Shield Program. Members of the organization will go out to police departments and train officers how to de-escalate behavioral issues that may come up when responding to households that have an individual with autism.
Weitzen said he's trained thousands of police officers and has likely taught the Autism Shield Program to every town's police department in Bergen County.
There are more services for individuals with autism now than a few years ago, but there are still some services that are not accounted for.
"It’s not getting addressed the way it should be. Especially as our children age up," Weitzen said.
"It’s a sad state of affairs as these children age, parents are struggling for where they’re going to go."
POAC does what it can to provide support for families who have an individual with autism. Events are hosted across Bergen County throughout the year. Weitzen recommends interested parties visit their website at POAC.net .