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Creating Opportunities for Adolescents and Adults

With a warm smile, Linda Fiddle recalls the woman who approached her at an adult day care center in New Jersey a while ago, and gave her a big hug.

“Thank you so much,” the woman told her. “I love coming here.” The director of the day care center then added the most poignant note: “She’d have no place to go if she didn’t come here.”

The woman, about 50 years old, has suffered from a neurological condition called autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) since childhood. ASD can vary widely in its symptoms and severity, but it generally affects social, behavioral and cognitive functioning. And the woman, with her parents gone, had few places to turn for help and social interaction.

For its part, the Broadway Adult Medical Day Care Center in Fair Lawn had successfully turned for grants to The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation, a grant-giving organization for adolescents and adults with the disorder. The group was founded by Linda and her husband, Fred Fiddle, a managing director at Merrill Lynch, in memory of their son, Daniel, who had ASD.

As Merrill Lynch this month unveils its United Way campaign, the Fiddles point out that employees of the firm have for the past several years had the option of earmarking their United Way donations to the foundation, and have often done so.

“We’re extremely grateful for the generosity everyone at Merrill Lynch has exhibited in selecting The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation for contributions through United Way,” Mr. Fiddle said. “And we very much hope the support continues and grows so we can continue enhancing the lives of adolescents and adults diagnosed with ASD.”

Founded in January 2000, the foundation includes three senior Merrill Lynch executives on its board: managing directors Steven Ball, Amy Ellis-Simon and Dan Cummings.

The three executives are not only leaders of the organization, but also longtime friends of the Fiddles. It was Ball whose sons gave Daniel a giant red ball for his ninth birthday. The ball became his favorite toy, and is today the organization’s symbol for reaching new heights to create fuller lives for this under-served group.

Based in Ridgewood, New Jersey, the foundation is focused not on youngsters with ASD, but on their later years, beginning with adolescence and continuing through the lifespan of individuals affected by the disorder.

With the diagnosis of autism increasing to as much as 1 in 150 individuals, there is clearly more of a need for organizations that serve this growing group, said Mrs. Fiddle, who is the foundation’s executive director. Individuals with ASD live a normal lifespan, but there continues to be a paucity of groups to serve them beyond their years as youngsters, she said.

“There are many programs for youngsters with autism, and they’re all very important,” she said. “But programs to assist adolescents and adults with ASD are few and far between.”

So the foundation has awarded some 30 grants to large and small groups across the United States over the past four years, with the funds helping several hundred adolescents and adults. The grants focus on vocational, recreational, educational and residential needs of adolescents and adults, as well as their families.

The programs that have received foundation grants include the Princeton Child Development Institute in New Jersey, which helps identify employment opportunities for adults with autism; the New England Center for Children, which used the funds to establish a student council for its residential facility outside Boston; Heart Song, which provides music and art therapy in New York; Danny’s Red Ball Weekend at Ridgewood YMCA Camp Bernie, which provides a camping program in New Jersey for young people 13 and over with autism; and Fountain House in New York City, which dedicated a wildlife habitat built with the help of autistic boy scouts with the funds.

Mr. Fiddle, who has been with Merrill Lynch for nearly two decades, says much of the group’s work can be directly attributed to its link to United Way.

“United Way has given us a great deal of credibility and the opportunity to reach out to many more groups and organizations that help people with autism,” he said.

His wife points out that a mother of a teenager with autism asked her a while ago why she continues her work with the foundation since she no longer has the full-time challenge of dealing with a child with the disorder.

“When I thought about it later, I realized that Danny is and will always be with me, inspiring me to encourage and create opportunities for individuals with autism to live the fullest lives possible,” she said. “And there is so much work to be done, so like my days with Danny, I will keep going.”

(This article was written for The 2005 United Way Campaign. If you would like to make a donation to The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation through the United Way, please use our code #042576)