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BresslerMassachusetts Couple Makes Autism a Priority

Alan and Lorraine Bressler were passionate about giving back to the Boston-area community where they lived for more than half a century and raised three daughters. Lorraine is a long-time overseer of the Museum of Fine Arts, where the couple created a named gallery. Alan, who passed away in September 2012, was a trustee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In addition to art and music, the couple supported education through the Boston Latin School Association and other Boston education projects.

During the last decade, the Bresslers became aware of another pressing community need, one that was brought home to them when an extended family member was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. People with Asperger’s, also known as “high-functioning autism,” have normal intelligence and language development, but have difficulty with social interaction and communication. They often have difficulties with behavioral and emotional control as a result of co-occurring psychiatric conditions. “After our family member’s diagnosis, we became aware that many people we know have children or grandchildren with similar problems, and that it’s common for these individuals to have psychiatric conditions as well,” says Lorraine Bressler. “Having a family member with autism and emotional problems can rip a family apart.”

 . . . It's Up To Us

“We’ve come to understand that it’s up to us, families who are affected, to support the research and clinical care that will help people with these disorders to lead productive and rewarding lives. We can’t sit back and wait for others to do the job.”
— Lorraine Bressler

Treatment of Co-occurring Psychiatric Conditions
The Bresslers knew that Joseph Biederman, MD and his colleagues in the Clinical and Research Program in Pediatric Psychopharmacology and Adult ADHD at Mass General were studying how treatment of co-occurring psychiatric conditions can enable individuals with high-functioning autism to reach their potential and lead fulfilling lives. The Biederman team’s research was prompted by their observation that about 15 percent of the young people they were treating for ADHD, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder had this form of autism.

“Dr. Biederman and his team were developing a system of coordinated care to provide practical solutions for families dealing with these challenges,” said Alan Bressler in a 2010 interview. “That approach made sense to us, so we began a discussion of how we could support his efforts.” The couple’s overture soon led to the creation of the Alan and Lorraine Bressler Clinical and Research Program for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Mass General. The program opened to patients in October 2007. It is one of only a few in the country to provide comprehensive psychiatric evaluation of children and adults with high-functioning autism, and to focus on treating their psychiatric conditions.

“The program made possible by the Bresslers is extraordinary on many levels,” says Dr. Biederman, founding director of the Bressler Program. “In many cases, young people can learn to manage and live with the symptoms of high-functioning autism. But if such a child is inattentive because of ADHD, or agitated, aggressive or violent because of bipolar disorder, teachers cannot reach the child, and he or she is likely to fail in school and function poorly in work, social and family life.”

Dr. Biederman and colleagues have found that with proper psychiatric treatment, their patients with autism can take fuller advantage of educational, social skills and vocational programs. The team is also developing driving and work simulation programs to provide older patients with strategies for acquiring these essential life skills; about one in five patients treated in the Bressler Program is 18 or older.

Patients come from all over the country to seek evaluation and treatment. “Before the Bressler Program existed, many parents of children with high-functioning autism were at their wits’ end, diagnostically confused and unable to find programs that offered effective treatment,” says Gagan Joshi, MD, scientific director of the Bressler Program. “The Bressler Program offers them a ‘home,’ where their child is fully understood and can receive treatment and support well into adulthood.”

“We knew that supporting this renowned group of psychiatrists and psychologists would yield benefits far beyond what anyone could have imagined, and this has already begun to happen,” said Alan Bressler in the 2010 interview. “We hope that the program will become a national model.” Since the number of referrals exceeds current clinical capacity, the family also hopes that others will step forward to support the program so that the team can help more families and conduct further research. “We’ve come to understand that it’s up to us, families who are affected, to support the research and clinical care that will help people with these disorders to lead productive and rewarding lives,” says Lorraine Bressler. “We can’t sit back and wait for others to do the job.”