(WKBN) – April is National Autism Awareness Month. A new report this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows an increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism. In 2020 — the year of the latest data — 1 out of every 36 children in the U.S. was diagnosed with autism. Schools across the country and here at home are working to provide crucial services to families. Tonight, WKBN Community Affairs Director Dee Crawford talks to the CEO of Potential Development, Paul Garchar, who is in his 23rd year of the position.

Garchar explains what autism is.

“Autism is a neurological disorder affecting children as early as age two and a half to three. Usually, when parents will start to notice that something’s going on, either a child may start to have communication skills, then they regress. Or I know with my nephew, Christmastime, he was sitting in the living room playing with the toy, completely isolated — noise, activities going on around him — just completely isolated. So there’s some early warning signs that you can look at. If you do start to see those, I’d reach out to the pediatrician immediately to explore those,” he said.

Information is available through a child’s pediatrician, the Youngstown Health Department or Potential Development.

“They [parents] can contact Potential Development and we have plenty of resources. We have plenty of good friends that help out the agency if they need a diagnosis. We have counseling centers that can help with that. We have a list of resources that can help with that,” Garchar said.

Autism affects 4 out of 5 males.

“For autism, it’s very hard sometimes to discuss because there’s actually no known cause right now and obviously, there’s no cure. Early intervention is a huge help to get things rolling as quickly as possible, but the actual cause right now is, there’s a lot of speculation that, you know, for every research project that says it might be associated to the vaccine or it may not, there’s, you know, another stack of research projects that say there’s no correlation,” Garchar said.

So, Garchar says it’s strictly speculation at the moment.

Potential Development has three locations in Youngstown: a preschool on Indianola Avenue, an elementary and middle school at 2400 Market Street and a high school at 2405 Market Street.

“So on Market Street in 2013, we purchased the building on the corner of Market and Dewey and converted that into our junior high/high school building. We serve students grades seven through 12. We did so well with that — the visibility, the high traffic up and down Market Street really helped put the school on the map. We then purchased the building across the street and it is housing our K to grade 6 program,” Garchar said.

Potential Development serves Mahoning, Trumbull and now portions of Columbiana County.

“There are other programs and services in the area serving students with autism, but I think the main thing that makes Potential Development unique is that we actually became a non-public charter school, kindergarten through grade 12, which actually means in addition to all of the individual goals that the students work on under IEP, we still teach reading, math, science, all the core content standards that that student would receive in the public schools. When they leave Potential Development, they’re going to walk out the door with a high school diploma. I think that’s the most unique part,” Garchar said.

Along with academics, Potential Development also offers socialization opportunities like dances and sports.

“So one of the concerns of having a child attend a specialized school like Potential Development is that they may miss out. They may miss out on some of those extracurricular activities. So we really, really over the past couple of years have tried to build up all those opportunities. So students don’t miss out on bowling. We have a basketball team. We’ll have track and field in the spring. The prom, things like that. So we do really try and make it a well-rounded experience… Music, art. We really try and incorporate as many possible typical experiences as we can,” Garchar said.

Graduation is also coming up in July.

The program is a haven for parents because for some, without Potential Development, many children would not begin to reach their full potential. Garchar said the spectrum is large, and they have classrooms that serve students on the moderate to lower end of the spectrum that may need more “hands-on” to complete their tasks.

“And we can serve everybody in between. We really like to let parents know that we are an option. We’re a good choice. If they need some help, they can enter the program at any stage, preschool, elementary, high school,” Garchar said. “If they are going into a new building in their district and that’s a little bit intimidating, maybe it’s a larger building, parents can come and check us out or any point they might have some issues.”

Potential Development is planning to expand. Garchar said he hopes to have a new campus building at the Market Street location.

“We really are able to reach all parts of Trumbull County that come own 711. We’re only a mile off of 680,” he said. “We are very accessible to the wider community. It’s a very exciting time for us to get the message out about Potential Development.”