A newsmaker you should know: Nearly 50 years helping people with autism and their families
May 9, 2013 8:45 AM
Daniel Torisky, right, a founder of Autism Society of Pittsburgh, and his son, Edward Torisky.
By Kathleen Ganster
Daniel Torisky and his late wife, Constance, knew very little about autism when their son, Edward, was diagnosed at the age of 3. But that wasn't unusual back in 1957, when the common thought was that it was "the parents' fault," Mr. Torisky said.
"They said it was caused by uncaring and unloving parents," he recalled.
"I focused on the diagnosis and she focused on making a difference in Eddy's life," he said. Mrs. Torisky went back to college and received a master's degree in special education from Duquesne University, a move her husband said was designed to better assist their son.
Mr. Torisky said that as parents, they knew something was different with Edward from almost the moment he was born.
"He had [body language] like a board and would scream for no reason. At first, they thought he was allergic to his formula," he said.
The young Edward showed no emotion and later, as his siblings were born, they soon passed him up developmentally.
"He wouldn't cuddle, wouldn't hug, wouldn't make eye contact," Mr. Torisky said.
As Edward grew, the Toriskys cared for him at home, ignoring doctor's advice that he be placed in an institution.
They also reached out to other families and in 1965, the Toriskys founded the Autism Society of Pittsburgh to help others cope with the diagnosis, as well as to educate the public about the disorder.
Today, Mr. Torisky noted, there is a great deal of available information about autism. April was National Autism Awareness Month, a busy time as Mr. Torisky and the organization continue efforts to increase awareness and research causes and health care.
Edward now lives in a group home at Allegheny Valley School and works in the computer lab and the laundry.
"He is high functioning and has good manners, but has a hard time expressing emotions, particularly since his mother died [in 1966]," Mr. Torisky said.
After his wife's death, Mr. Torisky married Donna Dorna, whom he met when he went to the Intermediate Unit to talk to someone about special eduction programming.
"When I told the secretary that I wanted to meet Dr. Dorna, I said, 'I want to meet him,' and she informed me that Dr. Dorna was a woman," he recalled.
The secretary set up a dinner meeting, which Mr. Torisky said set the stage for the future.
He said he and Donna Dorna work to educate and advocate about autism.
"Neurotypical or not, the potential of every individual born varies. And like most of us, those with autism never seem to quit learning or trying to learn," he said.
Mr. Torisky said early intervention, evaluation, appropriate care, treatment and ongoing education and training are vital to help reduce the "disabling characteristics of autism."
"The operative words in all approaches to helping each individual with autism must always be 'appropriate' and 'individualized,' " he said.
Mr. Torisky's resume is impressive, especially because most of his work is volunteer. In addition to his role with the local society, he has served on the national level; he and his late wife received a Jefferson Award for their volunteerism and created summer programs for autistic children.
Mr. Torisky said he is concerned about increasing numbers of children diagnosed. "We have more than 4,000 with autism in Allegheny County alone. My mailing list is 22,000 people -- that shows you the numbers we have, but the main worry is the increase in numbers," he said.
In addition to Edward, Mr. Torisky's step-granddaughter has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.
Another granddaughter Kelsey Lamoureux, 24, recently graduated from college.
Mr. Torisky said he hopes the advocacy work continues.
"After I die, I hope it will go on and on," he said.