Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Lauren Thierry and Jim Watkins

The Watkins family at Autism Awareness day at Shea Stadium, April 2007.
By Valerie Gladstone

Lauren Thierry and Jim Watkins once lived a charmed life. Gorgeous, talented, and among the brightest lights of the New York social scene, they gained the affection of everyone they encountered. They met and married in Nashville while climbing TV news ladders, relocating to Manhattan in the early ‘90s as their stars soared. He became anchor of the popular WB-11 “News at Ten;” she won a major slot at CNN reporting financial news. Like other young couples, they looked forward to having children. But unlike most other young couples, their first son, Liam, who was born in 1997, turned out to be autistic.

Liam Watkins in "DKNY BABY" campaign.
“We didn’t realize right away that Liam was different,” Lauren says during a recent conversation at Jim’s offices. “Perhaps because we didn’t want to know.” A proud Dad, he displays photographs of Liam and of their twin sons, Jamie and Luke.

A glorious combination of both parents, he looks like one of Ruben’s angelic, golden haired children. Not that the other boys aren’t adorable; it’s only that Liam projects something special, an ethereal quality noted by the Ford Model Agency early on, which made him the face of several kiddie ad campaigns before he could walk.

Families hit with such a formidable challenge sometimes never recover, defeated by the general lack of knowledge of the disease and overwhelmed the extraordinarily high cost of obtaining good care and education for afflicted kids – none of which is covered.

Instead, Lauren and Jim turned into fighters not only for Liam but also for every autistic child. “It forced us to rethink our lifestyle,” says Jim. “We decided to focus on the right now. We don’t know what causes autism or whether they’ll develop a magic pill to cure it – others are working on those things. But no matter what, we want these kids to have educations that will allow them to live as normal lives as possible.”

That’s the reason why they are now the chief benefactors of the New York Child Learning Institute in Queens, a school for children with autism ages 3 to 21, which they discovered after years of searching for a school that could help Liam The only school of its kind in the New York City area, it replicates the world-renowned Princeton Child Development Institute, which is widely regarded as the leader in the state of the art Applied Methodology for treating children with autism. Public school special education classes are completely unequipped and under funded to provide the required care.

Lauren w/ Hess corporate sponsors Jim Clifford and Joe Laforgia, April 2007.
Jim and Lauren give everything to the cause, which would be laudable even if she didn’t provide round the clock supervision for Liam, and he didn’t hold such a demanding, high profile position. Jim gives several talks a month, emceeing autism-related benefits.

“Most people don’t know what autism is,” he says, “and they have even less understanding of what can be done to help.” Seeking to raise awareness, Lauren made a much-praised documentary, Autism Every Day, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that each autistic child displays different abnormal behaviors along a spectrum. They range from mellow and silent to aggressive and excessively vocal. They may have savant abilities in music or art or they may have no talent.

“But,” Lauren says, “autism is almost universally defined by an inability to communicate properly with the rest of the world. Bringing them out of their shell is what gets every autism mom out of bed in the morning. Today is the day my child will tell me he is hungry or what he wants or where it hurts. Liam is 9 years old and is only now able to tell us where it hurts.”

For this massive breakthrough Jim and Lauren thank the New York Child Learning Institute (NYCLI). Seeking new ways to draw corporate donations to the school, they recently threw a hugely successful benefit raising half million dollars for autism education at Shea Stadium, getting the Mets management to agree to Autism Awareness Day at Shea. They then banded together with the New York Autism Center, the Alpine Learning Group, Autism Speaks and QSAC (Quality Services for the Autism Community) and as a result gained substantial support from Bear Stearns, the Hess Corporation, The Royal Bank of Scotland and Douglas-Elliman Real Estate.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Lauren said. “You can’t imagine what every small breakthrough means to a parent. And almost the only way that they will ever happen is with a sensitive education like NYCLI provides.”

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